a short story
Auntie is the best mother she can be under the circumstances; ten-year-old Gopal remembers no other. But her heart is heavy, he is too much for her. If she were a good woman with a husband it would be different.
She smiles at the boy sitting on the floor, “Ai! his smile, his eyes: so brilliant, so pure. He is more than 1 deserve and I feel like a thief, the way I steal trust from a child,” she confides to herself, as she ducks through the curtain into the alcove that is her kitchen and Copal´s sleeping place. She speaks in a loud whisper, her eye on the stained door-curtain. “Out little imp! Eat your chapati on the ghat, and go play until it is time for school. Save one for tiffin. Here, let me comb your wild hair down. Now out! Go! before uncle wakes up; this Bengali has no patience for children and he will not keep coming if he wakes and finds you here.”
Gopal, out in the winter dawn chill of the galli, jams his hands deep into the pockets of his blue school trousers. None of them like a child around. He hopes this uncle will not decide to stay with auntie. “Where could I go then? It is good in auntie´s house. 1 am small and do not take up so much space. What has that uncle got against children? T no longer sleep in auntie´s bed, as I did when 1 was little. I should think what to do if the fat Bengali stays. I must find Om Parvati didi, she will tell me what to do.”
The sun is not yet up, but blue dawn light sifts down to the grey stone pavement, between the blind side of the Hanuman temple and the building Auntie rooms in. He steps around a child´s steaming turd, and follows the narrow lane to where it opens onto the stone veranda of the Hanuman temple and he stands blinking at the sudden expanse of sky and river. He leans against a fluted column watching Buck-teeth Ram below on the ghat lighting fires for the tea stalls, where foreign tourists sit watching pilgrims strip and bathe between the wooden boats at the edge of the sacred river. Gopal knows Om Parvati is already down there somewhere in the crowd but he looks in at the tiny store room anyway— hardly more than an alcove—where they let her and Blind Hari, her father, sleep.
He peers through the stitched-together fertiliser bags that didi has made into a door-curtain. As he´d guessed, she is already gone. But this morning her father, Blind Hari, does not sit alone chanting “Ram Ram Ram” as usual. There is a stranger in the room with him. He wears green jeans, shiny with grease at the thighs and fly and a shiny black shirt with pictures, just like photos, of boats and ladies, some of them upside-down. He is a small muscular man. He looks very strong. Intense physical energy seems to radiate from his body. Coarse black hair writhes at the open collar of his shirt, and his oiled and neatly trimmed beard makes his head seem too large for his body.
His voice is quiet, but there is no softness in it. There is something alarming, not violence, not even roughness, but surely excessive energy in the way he touches and handles the old man. As though he were an object—or a goat. He is pressing rupee notes into Blind Han´s hand.
—”But it is not payment you old fool. You are selling nothing, it is just to help you. It is wrong for her to get money from the foreigners. Can you not imagine why they give it to her? She is not the child she was before you lost your sight. I have watched her doings. I can give her decent work and look after her as you can not. Each month her earnings will be sent to you. I will take out only for her food, the costume I will buy. Now take this. Four hundred rupees will keep an old man fed until next month, when more will come, and more the next month as long as you live. Take it you old blind fool—or let your child become a whore to feed you.”
Gopal turns away, blinking in the strong light of the sun which has risen above the Ganges, and descends the broad steps in little leaps. It is bad luck to let your feet touch the big iron staples that tie the great stone slabs together. The picture of the old man´s blank eyes filling with tears stays with him till he hears the big girl´s laugh. Where is she? There, beside the bald farang in white. He has bought her tea and samosa. She sees Gopal now and looks up at the man.
— “Here´s my little brother; isn´t he pretty? Will you give him tea?”
The boy halts, three broad steps above them and says to the girl, in their own tongue:
— “Not now. I must talk with you right away, didi.” —”Wait little brother. I´m with this friend.”
She smiles up at the man. She is tiny beside him. A dark child in an old, cheap, black European dress and oversize cracked patent-leather shoes with one-inch heels. Her age is perhaps twelve, though she could be fourteen. It is her manner rather than her physique that gives her the air of maturity beyond her years: a precocious self-confidence that to some, might pass for experience.
—”I have to take food to my friend who is sick. Do you have money for two more samosas?” She smiles and turns large eyes up at the bald man. The Italian strokes his new shaven head, smiles, and rummages in the bottom of his handloomed shoulder bag, finally producing a few coins. He takes hold of the girl´s hand, opens it, and presses the money into her open palm with all of his fingers. He strokes the small hand and closes it, folding the brown fingers over the coins.
—”Go then. I see you later for your English lesson, in my room.”
She pats his knee through his white cotton robe and smiles. —”See you later Rick.”
Then she is skipping down the rest of the steps to the walkway, with the boy Gopal in tow, the ridiculous shoes slapping; both of them careful not to touch the iron staples with their feet.
—”What´s so important, Little Sunshine, that I must stop chatting with my friend? Trouble at school?”
—” He came again and stayed all night with Auntie, the Bengali uncle, the fat one. I think he wants to stay with her every night now and soon they will make me go. The uncles never want me there. You must tell me what to do.”
—”They don´t stay forever. You can stay with us until he goes. You´re lucky he´s not from here, not a Banarasi. He´ll go back. He will not stay forever.”
—”But how will I go to the school if she does not wash my
uniform and pay the fees?”
—”When he´s gone you will go back to school. Yours is not the greatest trouble in the world.”
When they stop at the samosa seller´s stall, she buys three and gives one to the boy. Two, she wraps in a square of old newspaper which she carries in her hand.
—”For your father?” Gopal asks, and as he does, he remembers the scene he witnessed in her room, not ten minutes ago, which he had forgotten until then. He is about to tell her about it, to ask about the bearded man, but she breaks into a run.
—”For the circus girl. She´s sick and very hungry. Come with me, you can meet her.”
The small tent stands half hidden in dry thorny bush in the wasteland that passers-by use as a toilet, a few hundred metres upriver from where the Stone paved embankment ends. The tent is made from white fertiliser sacks sewn together with cord. Broken bottles and dried excrement have been kicked aside in a desultory attempt to clear a narrow margin around it. They step down into the shallow pit that the tent is pitched over; for a moment it is dark, then their eyes adjust to the dim light that filters in. Among the wooden crates and loudspeakers and faded advertising banners, a girl of eight or nine lies curled in a filthy blanket. “It is my shoulders.” the girl explains to Om Parvati, after licking the last oily crumb of samosa from the newspaper. “All night I am awake with the pain. I cannot sleep. Two days ago I cried when I d id my trick and the crowd gave no money; they spit on the ground and cursed at Pakka Shambhu. One student from the university shouted he would make a report to the enjeeo. One drunk kicked the loudspeaker. Now Pakka Shambhu says ´No food for selfish girls who will not do their work.´”
—”Run away then. Stay with us until the circus moves on, he won´t find you. I´ll teach you English and the tourists will buy you food; I´ll teach you my trick: how to make them like you.”
—”He would find me. The police like him. He gives them Meena, the biggest girl, for free. And when he finds me he will make me go in the good tent with them too, like Mina does at night. That´s what he did with the one before me. That´s what happens to girls who run away. He punishes. It´s better to wait until I can do the trick again. Perhaps he´ll get medicine for the pain.”
Little Gopal hunkers down just inside the entrance to the tent, a little to the side, where the roof slopes down to meet the dirt. He has been probing the semi-darkness with his eyes. He has not spoken. He wants to touch the loud speaker. To see how it makes sound. He says to the girl, “What is the trick sister? How does it hurt your shoulders?”
—”Have you never seen a circus? Don´t you come when they play the music in the street?”
—”I am in class four at the school. We hear the music, but we cannot go to see.”
—”I am the star. I stand upon that green stool and lock my fingers together so my arms are a ring. Then I step through the ring, over my linked hands and I bring my hands up behind my back and over my head to the front again, without ever opening the ring. It´s the part where I bring the ring behind my shoulders and over my head that hurts. There´s a part there, when my shoulders come out from the bones. When 1 was very small it did not hurt so much. They said my bones were soft and I could be trained so that it would never hurt, but now it does hurt and on the days when there are four or five shows I can´t help the crying. 1 cannot sleep for the pain and now he doesn´t feed me and I´m afraid that I wi!l die like the one before me, Meena´s little sister. Meena says she became so thin before she died.”
—”Why does he not give you medicine for the pain, sister?”
—”It makes me too sleepy. I fall off the stool sometimes, but it makes me feel good. I don´t get so hungry, and I don´t mind the pain so much when I have the medicine. But even when Pukka Shambhu buys it for me, I have to cat it all at once, even if it is enough for three days. If Meena finds it, she takes it from me. She is fifteen and she wants the medicine all the time.
—”Does she do the trick with the ring of her arms too? Do her shoulders hurt, sister?”
—”You are a baby who knows nothing, aren´t you. She is too big. All she can do is arch over backward with her hands and feet on the ground and the littlest girl, Bindu, doing the
disco dance on her chest and belly. That and the work she does in the good tent, at night. The rest of the time all she does is cook and wash and pack up the show for the road.”
She stops abruptly as a shadow fills the entrance to the tent. A small wiry bearded man in a shiny shirt crouches just inside, dominating the space.
—”Who is the new friend?” He smiles warmly at Om Parvati, showing strong white teeth in sensual lips, through the black of his neatly trimmed beard. “Such a pretty child. I´ll bet she´s a good girl too. I´ll bet she doesn´t shirk her work and make her people starve whenever she feels lazy. Would you like to see the circus for free, little one? Come; take tea with uncle Pukka Shambhu.”
Gopal has slipped around behind the man. He hesitates for a moment, half in and half out of the tent. The man does not turn to look at him, but keeps his eyes fixed on Om Parvati. To Gopal, she seems far away now, as though seen through the wrong end of a telescope.
—”It is time for class my sisters
—uncle. I must go.” He darts out of the tent, trips on a peg, catches his balance and runs back to Assi Ghat to collect his books. He does not look back. He understands that Om Parvati can not help him now, he must find another way.