Saturday, November 20, 2010
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
“Are ye done in there, ye little tramp?” came with the incessant banging on the bathroom door. In a flash Mimpsy gathered all her cleaning things, prayed silently for her and the loo and with a click of the door opening came face to face with her. She was enormous. Mimpsy was only five feet and having been treated like Quasimodo all her life also had a virtual hump making her even shorter. But Tiara was always the tallest, in any room. Even when her hair looked like it had gone through a mini nuclear explosion, when her eyes looked bloodier than the numerous Bloody Marys she had downed and when she looked puffed and bloated like a corn in hot oil, she still managed to look better than Mimpsy. And Tiara was very aware of it.
“Hogging’ the loo like it belongs to ye, are ye?” her breath smelled of the same stench Mimpsy was trying to get rid of for the past hour and a half. “You were always inconsiderate”, she said as she kneeled in front of the toilet bowl, “just like yer mum was. She was always...” but that was drowned by the sound of her throwing up the rest of last night’s party. Mimpsy’s day had just begun.
The rest of the day was spent in bed with the occasional calls for food and sometimes to remind Mimpsy that it was a pain and a burden to have a baboon in the household. It was only at 9.30 at night did they finally leave allowing Mimpsy a few hours of rest before it all began again. Yes, life was beautiful.
That Sunday seemed like every other Sunday in Mimpsy’s life. It began with Mr. D dropping the familiar cleaning kit on the floor where she had been vacuuming. “Clean,” he said and handed her the big brown mahogany box. Mr. D was never the kind to use many words. He was a lot more physical. He kicked the vacuum and left. Something was wrong. Tiara came two minutes later and confirmed what Mimpsy feared.
“A knife’s missing! Did ye sell it, you greedy rat?” Tiara pointed at the box, the box that once contained seven different kinds of knives, now had just the six. It was a family heirloom. Every Sunday it was Mimpsy’s job to clean, polish and at times to sharpen them. Apparently Mr. D’s ancestors were either butchers or were a part of some circus act. She never dared to clarify.
“Well, where is it?” and without waiting for an explanation picked Mimpsy up by her ragged shirt collar and banged her against the front door. This went on for a while, sometimes with her being pulled and dragged and finally being tossed at a corner of the living room. “Ye get no food tonight till ye tell us where it is ye sold it off to. Do you understand?” Mimpsy kept looking at the floor; she did not have much strength to look up and answer and hoped her silence would be understood as an affirmation. “Try not stealing another one. Now, get back to work!” with that the giant left leaving Jack to tend to his bean stalk.
At 3 a.m. Mimpsy did not wake up to her usual alarm clock ringing. It was a loud scream coming from the bedroom. She scrambled out of bed and ran into the room. There was something unusual about this scream, having been screamed at all her life she knew something was wrong. And then she saw it. Tiara was standing on the large bed with blood all over her and the purple bedcover. Those blood stains were the toughest spots to remove. Her hair was dishevelled and she looked like she had just woken up from a nightmare. But Mr. D looked peaceful lying on the bed, in spite of all that blood covering him like a thick blanket. They had found the missing knife; it was with Mr. D after all, lodged into his chest.
For a while Tiara and Mimpsy stared at each other. This kind of a mess never could fit into Mimpsy’s household chores. No, this required a bigger garbage bag and something much stronger than ‘Mr. John Clean’, the bathroom cleaner. So, she set of to work. Tiara stood silently as she watched Mimpsy as she put on her gardening gloves, take out the big needle and the thick thread and sow the garbage bags together. For the first time she realised how invaluable Mimpsy had been to their home. The trickiest past was separating the huge knife from its owner. Tiara with all her strength grabbed the knife with her bloody hands and pulled it out and Mimpsy held out a plastic bag for it. Mr. D, wrapped in the purple bedcover, was put into the garbage bag. All they had to do now is somehow dispose the body off somewhere, where no one would notice.
“I know what we can do,” Tiara looked like she had an epiphany. “There’s that lake, an hour’s drive from here. The uhm, it’s called..the uhm.. Windsor? Yeah, Lake Windsor!” So it was decided and at 5 a.m. Tiara dragged the bag out of her car and as she was about to dump it into the lake..
“Stop right there.” The voice from the microphone, the sound of the siren and that strange sound that almost sounded like a bark made Tiara drop the bag and put her hands in the air.
The Police Station was buzzing with activity. Fresh donuts had just been delivered and it was the survival of the fittest or possibly the fattest. Amidst all this, Inspector Terran had been examining the newest case. “It’s pretty simple. They partied a lot and she was wasted at the time. She was a bit drunk when we caught her with the body near the lake. ”
“We have a witness who saw how the murder happened?” asked Roy, Terran’s partner of four years.
Terran flipped through the case file. “It’s her step sister, Mimpsy Jones. She saw the whole thing. She’ll be coming down here any minute now.”
Roy placed a plastic bag on the table, “This was under the victim’s bed. It’s got the wife’s finger prints all over the knife in the bag. And the blood matched the victim.”
Terran smiled at Roy’s bored expression. “It’s okay buddy, we’ll get a better case soon.”
There was a knock and both looked up to find Mimpsy standing, small and insignificant like always. Sitting down she looked up at Terran as he asked, “Are you ready to testify against Mrs Tiara Jones D for the murder of her husband Mr. D?” Mimpsy already felt like she was in court.
“Don’t be afraid. I know she is your sister but you are doing the right thing”, Terran gave her an encouraging smile.
Roy read through the file, “You said you saw them leave for a party at 9.30 pm and then at 3 a.m. you woke up to find Mrs D take her husband’s antique knife and stab him in the chest. And then she sowed garbage bags together and stuffed the body in there and kept the knife in another plastic bag. She threatened to kill you if you told the police about this.” Roy looked up at Mimpsy, “But you did the right thing. No one will harm you anymore.”
Terran and Roy led Mimpsy towards the exit. “I didn’t do it! I swear I didn’t!” Tiara was being dragged to her new home, prison. She suddenly saw Mimpsy, “She did it! She stole the knife and stabbed my husband! She did it! Not me! Let me go!” Tiara struggled and screamed but in vain.
“I know it must be hard for you, especially after she took you in after your mother died.” Terran added as he watched Mimpsy get into the cab.
Mimpsy smiled for the first time in a long while and said, “Oh no, sir, you are mistaken. She didn’t take me after my mother’s death. She had taken me in after she had killed my mother.” And with that the cab sped off.
Monday, November 15, 2010
On the auspicious morning of Kali Pujo, Biswambhar babu decided to die.
The news spread like wildfire through the back alleys of Bat-tala, crisp as the clattering of type in the print shops, spicy as the perfume of a Chitpur whore, sizzling and scandalous as The Amours of Elokeshi still warm from the press, fifty copies of which Biswambhar babu’s assistant, Haripada, had finished binding only the day before. Presses clanked to a halt as phalanxes of printers rushed down the street, shedding stray pages of the Panchatantra, Battrish Singhashan, Gol-e-hormuj Ketab, Lokhhi’r Panchali, The Paramour of Parameswari, Lustful Dreams of Lonely Wives, Shib-Parbati Parba, Kama-Rahasya, Hemlata-Ratikanta and Shepherd’s Atlas. Their assistants raced after them, dripping ink, glue and perspiration – artists and binders, harlots and pimps, vendors, beggars, urchins and stray dogs clustered at street-corners clamouring for details. Rampant in her little shrine, Ma Kali winced as handfuls of hibiscus were hurled at her like cricket-balls; stared open-mouthed as her devotees abandoned her altar, scuttling off to join their friends at Biswambhar babu’s deathbed.
By noon, a steady procession of would-be mourners could be seen marching along to the little house at the end of the lane. The dying man lay in state in the front room, on the enormous brass bedstead that had been part of Padmabati’s dowry. Plump and comely Padmabati, Biswambhar babu’s widow-to-be, stood weeping copiously at his head; from time to time, she dried her tears and plumped up the six enormous pillows that supported her husband’s languishing form. One by one, Biswambhar babu’s neighbours, his fellow-printers and friends tiptoed up to the bed and tried to persuade him not to die. Was he feeling ill? they asked anxiously. Had he, perhaps, quarreled with his wife or mortgaged his press or been diddled out of a deal? Had that idiot Haripada mixed up the pages while binding those fifty freshly-printed copies of the Amours of Elokeshi? No, said Biswambhar babu shortly and turned his face to the wall.
It was suggested that his favourite food might win him back to life. His middle son was immediately dispatched to the market to buy lobsters, ilish, the best gobindabhog rice and two seers of ghee. Padmabati sat on the kitchen floor shedding tears and grinding shorshe. Biswambhar babu’s brass plate was piled high with delicacies and offered to him by loving hands, the oily fragrance of sweets cooked in ghee was wafted under his nose, plump pods of cardamom were held to his unyielding lips: Biswambhar babu only opened them long enough to utter in ringing tones, 'No!'
The stomach having proved recalcitrant, the next appeal was to the sentiments. Biswambhar babu’s two year- old grandson trailed sticky fingers over his grandsire’s chest, his sons and daughters wept, Padmabati (suffering the combined effects of emotion and mustard-paste) wept even more bitterly. Krishnadas babu, Biswambhar babu’s oldest friend, bent over his bed with a fan of cards in his hand and begged him in broken tones for one last game. Haripada, who had been hovering helplessly in the background, had the brilliant idea of waving The Amours of Elokeshi before his master’s face, but Biswambhar babu proved dead even to the scent of new paper and fresh ink. Motilal, his eldest son, boxed poor Haripada’s ears for bringing dirty pictures to his father’s deathbed.
By evening, the crowd outside had swelled to alarming proportions. Biswambhar babu seemed to feel the excitement: he turned away from the wall, motioned to Padmabati to bring him a paan and muttered indistinctly through it, to his three sons, ‘I have no money’, ‘You’ll get nothing from me,’ and ‘Look after the shop.’
Late at night, Kali Pujo commenced in the mandir. Little by little, all through the afternoon, the dhakis had edged closer to the house. Their manic drumming pounded in Biswambhar babu’s head as fireworks hissed and blazed outside. Chorkis whirled, tubris flowered, kalipatkas exploded deafeningly in a brilliant show of pyrotechnic persuasion. But Biswambhar babu turned his face to the wall again, said (in grave and gravelly tones this time), ‘No.’
Clustered on the balconies of Roshanara Bai’s celebrated brothel, the women looked down at the squat little house. From a particular angle, it was possible to see right through Biswambhar babu’s bedroom window; buxom young Mohsina Bai thought she could make out the dim form of Biswambhar babu himself, lying in bed. She sighed, as did many of Roshanara Bai’s plumper ladies: Biswambhar babu had been particularly partial to their company. Not one of your tight-fisted customers, either, she reflected, rolling a handsome string of pearls between her thumb and forefinger, and so well-versed in all thirty-six poses described (with illustrations) in Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar! A true rasik, and a true gentleman. Not like the goose-pimpled, pigeon-chested, English-speaking, whore-fearing urchins of today. ‘Why do you want to die?’ she demanded of the gunpowdery, burnt-smelling air.
At three o’clock in the morning, the audience outside Biswambhar babu’s window finally dispersed and Padmabati found herself alone with her husband. Impossible to go to sleep beside that inert form. Besides, he and his six massive pillows had left no room for her on the bed. Padmabati stared at Biswambhar babu’s plump, cosseted body, his face which, even in sleep, wore the expression of a peevish child. He had married her when she was ten, sown the seeds of five lusty children in her belly, and done absolutely nothing else for her in the last thirty years. She could not think of a single important reason why she should mourn his passing, yet it seemed immeasurably important that he should not die. Padmabati found herself hurrying out of the house, down the now deserted road, past the shrouded row of printing-presses to the temple at the end of the street. She threw herself at the feet of the goddess. ‘Save him Ma, save him. He is my parameswar, my supreme lord. My life and his are one, his death is my death.’
The goddess snorted. Her divine snort descended upon Padmabati’s ears like a mighty clap of thunder. She sat bolt upright and looked around the empty temple. Ma Kali seemed to be grinning down at her rather sardonically. Padmabati’s eyes were on a level with the goddess’s alta-painted feet, and with Shib-thakur, who was lying beneath them, a supremely fatuous expression on his face.
'That lord of yours is best kept under your feet, child,' a matter-of-fact voice informed Padmabati. ‘Though from what I’ve seen of him, you’ll have trouble balancing on his belly. Then again, you’re no fairy yourself' – the goddess seemed to be gazing approvingly at Padmabati’s plump and shapely arms, ' – you should be able to keep him down.'
'But Ma –' protested Padmabati weakly.
'Much better for him,' said Ma Kali, a little defensively. 'And if he doesn’t like it, he’ll have to lump it, won’t he? Look at my lord, he’s perfectly happy down there and as good as gold. Of course, yours is a different matter. Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar indeed! Amours of Elokeshi! Pinch his nose, and it’ll run printing ink. He even takes his rasabhandar – his thirty-six poses with their matching diagrams – to Mohsina Bai’s bed! Let him die if he likes, Padmabati – he’ll have to answer to me here.'
'Mohsina bai’s bed?' demanded Padmabati, heaving herself to her feet.
'Yes, and a good little whoreling she is too. I won’t have you quarrelling with her, Padmabati, you just leave her alone. Deal with that lord of yours. Sit in his printing-shop, it’s that rascal Ganesha’s new engine. Take a trip on it. See the world!' For a second, Ma Kali’s face was transfigured with pure mischief as she stuck her tongue out at Padmabati and waved two of her four arms as though clanking up the press.
'Thank you Ma.' Touching her head briefly to the altar, Padmabati hurried home.
Over the next few days, Biswambhar babu remained fixed in his resolve. He lay on the huge brass bed, his face a picture of weary resignation, refusing to talk or eat. Every evening he chewed morosely on a single paan that Padmabati prepared for him. The Bat-tala presses began to clank again, but Biswambhar babu’s little print-shop stood silent and forlorn. The very press seemed less black and shiny than before; Haripada moped around the shop with nothing to do, having finished sewing the quires together for a hundred and twenty copies of Kula Kalankini ba Kalikatar Guptakatha.
Biswambhar babu’s neighbours continued to gather in anxious knots around his bed: Padmabati fried them cauliflower singaras and brewed endless cups of sweet, cardamom-scented tea. Biswambhar babu was offered his share of the treats, but he turned his face to the wall and said, in low, resonant tones, ‘No.’ Padmabati did not shed tears as before; she popped a singara into her own mouth and bustled away to discuss the arrangements for Biswambhar babu’s funeral. Regiments of stiff white rajanigandha stood at attention, sandalwood and camphor for the pyre piled up in the courtyard. Padmabati and her daughters-in-law were forever running down to the shops; on haat days they returned with loaded with the finest jasmine-scented incense, yards of white cotton for winding around the corpse, gold rings for the dom to steal, pewter-handled razors for his sons to shave their heads with, gamchhas, dhotis, shawls and umbrellas for the priest, white saris for the widow, red-bordered ones for the other women, ghee and spices, sweets and savouries, enough to feed fifty Brahmins. Biswambhar babu lay with his face turned to the wall; with a piece of chalk pinched from the pocket of his youngest son, he engaged in complex calculations to determine exactly how much they were spending. Even by the most modest estimates, the figures were so staggering that for a second he wondered if they were really the disordered imaginings of his dying brain. Padmabati appeared, flushed and triumphant: she drew fifty crisp new rupees from the lokhhi’r jhaanpi by Biswambhar babu’s head. It was all true.
That evening, Biswambhar babu did not ask for his usual paan. Padmabati came in and sat by his bed. The little window framed a square of flaming sunset sky, huge wings of shadow flitted over the walls, the brass bedposts, the teakwood chest, the tarnished silver of Padmabati’s immense sindoor-box were no more than faint gleams in the room’s dimness. The presses were closing for the day, their last mournful clanks lingered on Biswambhar babu’s ears like the lowing of cows returning at twilight to the fold. The peace of the mellow hour stole into his heart, he forgot his funeral bill of nearly five thousand rupees and felt almost tender towards Padmabati. Poor, ignorant woman – what would she do without him? Was it right to die, on a whim almost, because his tea had not been hot enough one morning, his neemtwig toothbrush had prodded agonizingly at the sore spot on his gum, because the smell of wet ink drifting in from the street had brought on a sudden nausea, as if it were wafting to his nostrils the acrid draught of the world’s indifference, the bitterness of domestic monotony? Perhaps, after all, life was worth living; after all, he was supremely important to this wretched woman by his side. Across the street, lamps glowed in Roshanara Bai’s whorehouse; Padmabati turned to her husband and asked accusingly, 'Aren’t you going to die soon?'
Biswambhar babu shrank into his pillows and said in weak, languishing accents, 'No'.
'Then you won’t mind if I buy myself a new pair of earrings? So many people come to the house these days, this old pair really isn’t fit to be seen. And I might as well go down to the shop one of these days, see how Haripada’s looking after things. No sense in ushering Lokhhi in by the door, then letting her fly out of the window!'
'No,’ said Biswambhar babu in broken tones.
Two days later, Haripada, waggling his feet to the rhythm of his neighbour’s press and thumbing through an unsold copy of Swachitra Ratishastra looked up and froze in horror as he saw Padmabati bearing down upon him like a Benarasi-draped battleship. Cuffing his head with one shapely hand, she snatched the book from him with the other and bellowed, 'Reading, are you, my young lug-headed loon? D’you want to ruin us? Why, you gormless gibbon, your master’s press will crumble into rusty dust before those dirty books can put hair on your skinny chest! Now fetch me the accounts and go to your work. And don’t let me see you sneaking off to chat up that young whore at Roshanara Bai’s, leave her for your master and I’ll buy you a better one.'
The rubies in Padmabati’s ears flashed an angry scarlet, the light streaming through a gap in the wall seemed to strike off her face in a shower of sparks. A dazzled Haripada gasped and scuttled off to start up the press, while Padmabati, clicking her tongue, flicked through the red-bound notebook that was their catalogue of publications. 'Gopon Gopi-katha!' she bellowed. 'Brinda Sangbaad! Rati-rahasya! Sankhhipta Kama-sutra! Kalankini Kankabati with illustrations! Forty lithographs of fornication in full colour! Haripada, ekhane aye…'
Calling upon his ancestors to save him, an ink-stained Haripada scuttled out from behind the press. Padmabati dumped bundles of Biswambhar babu’s more colourful publications in his arms. 'Take these away,' she said sternly. 'You can sell them cut-price in front of Roshanara Bai’s in the evenings. Now start setting the type for a nice illustrated set of Lokhhi’r Panchalis. I want fifty copies bound in scarlet by the day after tomorrow.'
Biswambhar babu’s press shuddered into life again. Padmabati tucked her alta-painted feet under her and flipped fascinatedly through the pages of Pass-Kora Magi: Samajik Prahasan (Bluestocking Bitch: Satirical Sketches of Contemporary Society). In the days that followed, as Haripada clanked out copies of Lokhhi’r Panchali, Annadamangal, Manasamangal, Chandimangal, Sri Krishnakirtankabya and Satibrati Sita-pati, she made her way through Ratibilas, Kama-kahini, Swachitra Ratishastra and (snorting) Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar. Her education considerably advanced, she then refreshed herself with Yousuf-Zuleikha, The Tales of Amir Hamza, One Thousand and One Nights and Hutom Pyancha’r Naksha. As Biswambhar babu stared through the bars of his window at the lights on Roshanara Bai’s balcony, Padmabati, the jewels in her ears flashing bewitchingly, flirted by the hour with the neighbourhood printers, Kalicharan Ghosh, Bihari Das and Ramkari Mitra, whose consequent neglect of their own print-shops greatly increased the prosperity of hers. She acquired a new layer of sleek golden flesh and a larger set of crocodile-headed bangles to fit her dimpled wrists.
All the talk of that garrulous street now revolved around Padmabati’s astonishing emancipation. No one asked about Biswambhar babu any more, though they remained vaguely conscious of him dying slowly, stubbornly and silently in the background.
And then, one morning, almost in protest, as if he were saying a final, futile, despairing ‘No’ to his complete obliteration from public memory, Biswambhar babu did die. Padmabati, dressed in a new and dashing sari of fine organza cotton and about to float off to the press with billowing turquoise sails, noticed him lying with his face turned up to the ceiling and not towards the wall. She laid her glossy black head on his chest and listened to the silence where there had once been the beat of his heart. Her eyes brimmed over with tears, she thought of the length of white cotton laid away in her teakwood chest, of the sandalwood and camphor waiting silently in the yard. He was gone, just when she had begun to believe he would be lying there forever. Sunlight streamed through the little window, the smell of jasmine drifted across the street from Roshanara’s Bai’s, the little back lane seemed poised in a moment of uncertain silence as Padmabati wondered what she would do now. Then suddenly, an indefinable change came over her features, a slow, subtle, wonderful smile spread over her face, she got to her feet calling briskly for Rakhal-er ma and told her to lay out the body. Then she hurried out of that death-hushed house into the sunshine of the waiting street. It was calling her. She could hear it as she walked quickly along the row of print-shops, the clank of Biswambhar babu’s – no, her – little black printing press.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
I am stranger, a ghost, a drifting shadow. Nameless I float through the crowd, the throng in every shopping mall, village bazaar or seedy bar; I haunt the empty dancing hall, and night-deserted playing ground; hear all and never make a sound, unwatched I watch the world. Indeed I am a mendicant, a vagabond, a bum; indeed I am an only child, indeed I’m on the run. Four years I’ve roved both far and wide, through city and through countryside, unheard, invisible, absurd, four years I have not said a word, have perfected my surreptitious stare, four years I have not had a care.
I have sought oblivion, chased it into the sunset, into the night, chased it over the horizon, over mountains and oceans and deserts of sand and ice. Stripped of identity, shorn from home, I seek my anonymous divinity, seek my right to roam naked through the streets of life an alien, or expatriate at least.
Why do I wish to leave off life, and why have I left home?
Why do I seek to seek alone, and how should I presume?
The truth – I’m on a noble quest, to find a damsel in distress, and find a corner with a view, record, re-order and review the facts and add some jingle jangle, a fight scene or a love triangle, perhaps an ancient gypsy curse, perhaps I’ll write it all in verse.
I am the after-showtime stage, the back of messy notebook page, stalker, stranger, shadow, ghost, the unstamped, misdelivered post; I’m blank as I must need to be, show only half of what I see, indeed I am a raconteur, a poet and a thief.
I’ll steal your face to put in words, I’ll trap your soul to make it heard, I’ll read your stories through your eyes, then mix them up, then throw in lies, then shape and structure and then honour the story with a worthy genre.
I catch a train upon a whim; I do this quite a lot. People in transit are people standing still, existing temporarily in limbo, between worlds, their daily lives suspended or their holiday not begun. For a while they are a bit like me, at least not who they used to be. For a while they can be strange, or still, or stranger still be friends. I like to watch the people waiting for the train to start to stop, at stations like to watch them drop back into the sea of life, of lost humanity.
In the compartment with me are two middle income families, which may as well be one. Father works his government job, sleeps and files, collects his pay, and takes his two week holiday once a year with wife and kids to the same spot as the year before, the year before and the year before. Mother stays at home and cooks, cribs and quarrels and cares, takes an active interest in the personal affairs of neighbours and celebrities, and ancient family recipes. Chintu goes to school but likes to play cricket in corridors and passageways, his sister Sita gets good grades, and wears red ribbons on oily braids.
And then an army of maidservants and migrant labour whirlpooling into the anus big city, sucked in and spat out periodically, sometimes just sucked in.
In that crowd I spot an interesting face. It bears the creases and wrinkles of a lifetime’s hard work, two oddly twinkling eyes and a luxuriant white handlebar moustache that twitched over a somewhat impish half-smile. The man wearing it stands out as one not bearing the mark of any trade. Dressed in a clean but slightly worn dhoti and a faded blue and white checked shirt, he would fit into any one of a hundred different roles.
I begin to ascribe him a background story. He is a farmer. Or perhaps the owner of a small grocery shop. He is travelling from his home in the village (small town?) to arrange the particulars of his daughter’s marriage. Or to procure a job for his eldest son. Or to beg a loan or pay a bribe, mortgage land or ask for a waiver of interest. Perhaps he is a proud, independent patriarch paying a visit to one of many children, or on his way to resolve a family dispute.
I notice that he carries nothing with himself, not even a small bag, and guess that his journey is perhaps not a significant one, but rather one that he undertakes regularly, perhaps every day, probably to work.
Or maybe nothing’s all he owns, or maybe he’s like me, itinerant and gypsy soul, a noble sanyasi. Or maybe even something more, or maybe he’s like me.
He sits by the open door, lights a biri and watches the countryside stream past. He puffs leisurely, stretching out and savouring each drag, blowing majestic jets of smoke through his nostrils. He seems lost in the moment, seems to be living it out of context, moulding it into its perfect place in his own mind.
The train moves fast on sea legs, wobbling but rattling out a steady rhythm over the tracks. The tracks seem to grow out of each other and melt into each other, seem to dance in frenzied grace beneath us. He stares, appears to contemplate them deeply.
He stubs his biri butt end and throws it out the door. Then he stands up, looks directly at me, winks, and jumps out after it.
Note: Any and all grammatical, syntactical or other miscellaneous errors were made on purpose and may be written off to artistic license.
As when a little Girl.” -- Emily Dickinson.
In the corner of her treehouse, Emily thought about the colour of hunger. It was noon, and she had been up at the crack of dawn. She had not eaten breakfast, and she could see the bilious yellow vapour thickening around her. Her tummy rumbled, and she patted it twice to quieten it. It would not do to be heard.
A fat cicada fluttered past her like it was on a mission. Emily was tempted to whisper to it: “Family: Cicadidae, suborder: Homoptera, many genera.” She said it in her head.
Theo had had yet another spell. He was raving in his room. Mummy was running all over the house fetching things while Daddy stayed in Theo's room, looking at him with a supremely silly expression on his face. Emily had slipped out unnoticed. She had on her favourite powder blue jumper that day, and a red ribbon in her hair. She grew restless and climbed down the tree. Her trainers squelched in the mud as she ran the length of the farm, so she had to take them off until she reached the gate that led outside of the farm. Emily loved running. She ran like the wind -- her mother said it was a delight to watch her, she made it look so effortless. She had run in the 500 m Young Survivors Marathon and had beaten everyone else by a huge margin. All the families that lived on the Kwai Delta had come to watch, and those few families that still had children had enthusiastically participated.
Theo had said she made him imagine those airplanes that Daddy always talked about, the ones Daddy had flown before petrol had run out. Theo had flown in some of the very last airplane flights still open to the public before they shut them down completely.
She thought of Theo as she ran. And as she thought of him, she ran faster and farther from the farm. She didn't notice the people looking at her. She didn't even notice the gradual darkening of the sky, the gentle raindrops that began to fall. Emily could see Theo when they were both younger – Emily only five, and Theo twelve. Theo never raved then, he played football and laughed and had scabs on his knees. This one time, on his birthday, he had woken Emily up first thing in the morning, put her on his shoulders and taken her for a run around their old house. Emily was slowly feeling the pain in her legs, and she realized with a jolt how dark it was, how worried they all must be. They must be looking for her. A knot began to rise up in her stomach. She turned around and began to run back twice as hard, ignoring the pain in her legs, ignoring the rain falling steadily on her head.
You might say it was the stopping that changed everything. As Emily hurried home, her marvelous toes barely touching the ground, she began to slow down to stop for a second. Her six long braids were unraveling, and she paused to tighten the ribbon that tied them together. Pema and Rudy, who were there while it happened, described it as a quick flash of light that disappeared in a second, having hit Emily squarely on the head. Emily had then flown in the air and immediately crashed down with a dull thud. All Emily remembered was feeling like she had been hit by something big, and strong, and being sore all over after she regained consciousness.
She woke up in her own bed, surrounded by her anxious looking parents and about fifteen other people, including Pema and Rudy, who had helped to bring her home. Mummy had been peering at her with the special expression that was usually reserved for Theo when he had one of his “spells”.
Healer Rubart said that it was nothing to worry about, no bones had been broken, but the people who kept milling about her kicked up such a fuss that you'd think she was on the brink of death. Pema's mother had had an anxiety attack right there, in the living room, while several of the other adults had crying spells. Emily overheard a great deal of muttering while she pretended to be fast asleep.
“Only about twenty seven of them left...” “You know we can't have a baby, we've tried so many times, but the Healers say that the radioactive damage is too great...” “This is a risk we simply cannot take again, Fael. Why was Emily running around outside?”
Emily felt that familiar knot in her stomach again, so she opened her eyes and looked out of her window. The azalea bushes fluttered in the breeze. “Genus Rhododendron, family Ericaceae: many cultivars,” she said to them, and drifted off to sleep.
When Emily woke up again, she was conscious of another kind of muttering. “Little girl, one of the last...I heard the squealing inside her head.” The voice sounded like someone rubbing two pieces of gravel together. She was puzzled by this. Was this Rudy's father, with a cold perhaps? She peeked but could only see Theo quickly leaving her room.
The mutterings followed her wherever she went. The adults were all concerned for her, and Mummy and Daddy were at their wit's end making sure she was always within eyesight. She was never scolded; she was never ignored either. Emily began to tire of the constant attention. She couldn't shut the door to her room because she'd worry them. She couldn't go for a walk because she'd worry them. Theo didn't even rave anymore, attention was never diverted from both of them for a minute. Theo just threw himself into history books and his maps and diaries of the Old World. The knot in Emily's stomach grew tighter every time she walked into a room and her parents abruptly stopped talking. Emily missed running. She wanted to feel the wind in her braids.
Not wanting to send her off again, Mummy allowed her to have short walks within the boundaries of the farm. She was always to stay within the fences and must be accompanied by someone if she wished to go out.
She had gone out that day. It had been a glorious looking day. Her brown skin had paled to a light biscuit colour, but as soon as she sprinted in the sun she glowed. That's when she heard the mutterings again. She was so fast she couldn't figure out where they were coming from. Whoever they were, they'd leave in a while.
She ran the length of the farm and back again, and still she heard them. This was really annoying. Couldn't she be left alone even for a moment? She had worked herself up to a proper eleven year old girl's rage tantrum now, and was ready to scream at whoever would listen. She stopped. It was that gravely voice again, and it seemed to be coming from the woods. Really, it was one of the strangest voices she'd ever heard. “Eagle girl...hear our story. Tell your kind to leave the Kwai...” “Leave peacefully, and seek other islands in the archipelago, and you will not be harmed...”
Emily stiffened. Who could it be? Rudy and Theo playing a trick on her? “Theo? Rudy?”, she called, not moving from her spot. “Stop it, you're creeping me out.” “Little girl...eagle girl...you are the last of your kind...tell them you will be the first to go.” Emily dashed into the trees without warning. She would catch Theo and give him a piece of her mind. She sprinted straight into the woods and ran around in them looking everywhere for a sign of him.
She found no one. The mutterings rang in her ears as she sprinted out of the woods and back into her clearing.
“Who is it? Speak up!”
“It is us, eagle girl, we are the spirits that make up all the life of the Kwai.” Emily thought about the colour of fear, and saw its dirty green hissing motions in the air towards her, for she realized that it was no human voice she was hearing. She turned and bolted in the direction of the farmhouse.
It was Emily who didn't want to leave the house now. It puzzled her parents, but nobody complained. Yet she couldn't get rid of the voice. It seemed to be everywhere she went. She was petrified of it. Where Theo would have ranted, she whimpered. Her alarmed family did all they could to comfort her. The voice persisted in trying to talk to her, and most of its intimations were dire warnings. Emily never answered.
It was only when it started making active threats that Emily considered telling. It was a Saturday, and the voice had been silent for the night. In the morning, as Emily made her way back into her bedroom after breakfast though, the voice told her Pema was in trouble. “The foolish girl plucked azaleas yesterday...tell them, eagle girl, their old ways are not welcome here...she will see...”
In the evening, Rudy and Amir came running to the farmhouse, and told them that a lichen-laden branch had fallen over Pema's head an hour ago as she played in the garden. Healer Rumbart was already at their house, trying to revive her. They all rushed to Pema's cottage, where her family was distraught. Watching Pema lying on the bed with a big bandage wrapped around her head hit Emily like that cursed branch of lightning had hit her three weeks ago.
That night, she spoke to the voice. “What is it that you want from us? Answer me!”
“We told you, eagle girl, we want you to take your kind and leave the Kwai Delta...take your big ships and find another island..there is no place for you here...”
There was a full yellow moon in the plum coloured sky that night, and Emily didn't get a wink of sleep. She negotiated with the voice all night. It was cryptic and implacable, and merely repeated itself over and over again. Emily tired of trying to coax it to change its decision or reveal more information, and shed tears at the break of dawn.
Talking to the voice had made it disappear. Having communicated its demands, it no longer muttered to Emily all the time. She ran the conversation in circles around her head, and the only conclusion she reached was that the voice and its power were both real, and that it did not want them on the Kwai. As the days went by, Emily began to relax. Maybe it had listened to her plea for compromise and peaceful co-existence after all.
It was not until Pema was found dead the following weekend that Emily thought seriously about the voice again. She had been out in the garden alone, waiting for Rudy, so they could both walk to Emily's farmhouse and take history lessons from Theo. She was found lying on the ground with an azalea blossom clasped in her right hand, and a heavy branch that seemed to have hit her head and rolled off her lifeless body.
The funeral had a quality of desperation about it. There were only twenty six children in the New World now – this was unlike the sensation of reading of a child's death in the newspaper that would have characterized the Old World; people knew each other, and a large family deeply mourned Pema.
The next few weeks took on a nightmarish quality for all the citizens of the New World. No children played outside, all the adults were supremely vigilant. Emily was seized by the kind of dilemma her eleven year old mind was not equipped to handle. And then Adam's body was found floating down the Ayumba stream. Some ivy was wrapped around his neck, which bore strangulation marks. This was the sort of hysteria that had seized people while the Old World was in the process of ending.
When Rudy passed away, Emily could wait no longer. She gathered her family in the living room and told them everything about the voice. Theo and Mummy looked very alarmed, and Mummy began to hesitantly talk to Emily, “Emily darling, you haven't been quite right since the accident...”
“This has happened before,” Emily's father quietly interjected. “This happened to me in the Old World, when I was a field biologist in Polynesia. It was very close to the end, and this voice was haunting me, telling me I needed to do something.”
Red panic and purple relief weaved in the air around Emily.
It was a good thing that Emily's father was one of the foremost explorers in the Kwai archipelago expedition. The dead children and the peculiar circumstances under which they had been found strengthened Emily's case. The people were desperate for any solution, if it meant that no more children would die.
The whole community went into the forests of the Kwai Delta the following morning. It was wrapped in a menacing silence and punctuated by streaming sunlight which permeated the darkness of the forest. Determination hung thick and brown around Emily's person.
All that was left of the human race settled itself on the forest floor. If any had doubted Emily before this, the strange song humming in their heads as they sat in silence converted them irrevocably. They knew not how long they sat there, with that strange and beautiful humming buzzing in their ears. Each seemed to be conversing silently with the spirits of the Kwai. The ivy slithered around them, and the lichen glistened with dew. Emily sat in the center, and the song that grew into a crescendo in their heads burst forth from her lips at a counterpoint. It was a colour none of them had ever seen before. They could not have named it had they tried. It engulfed her completely, until she was only a deep gravely voice singing that strange song. The very trees seemed to be singing to the sky. As the song and the colour began to engulf them all, the diminuendo of the strange music lulled them into the depths of peace. Perhaps the unnamed colour was that of the most beautiful silence never to be heard again.
Note: The Emily Dickinson quote was just a prompt for the story. The story has nothing to do with it as such.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
|6||Shamim Akhtar Molla||8||5||13|
|49||Debopama Das Gupta||6.5||7||13.5|