In this story, an old woman prays. She prays right through to the end of the story.
Do you think you might be able, suddenly, to run fast enough to outrun a lion? What if it were chasing you? Do you think you might possess a reserve of strength that could translate into speed?
His father’s father was a peasant. His father was therefore a peasant. A peasant is a man who starves in Malaysia where he has been shipped to serve a five-year term of indentured servitude, at the end of which he may return to his home in the village of Kurandi in the kingdom of Bastar, which after the colonial period becomes the district of Bastar, first in the state of Madhya Pradesh and eventually in the state of Chhattisgarh.
Japan occupies Malaysia in 1944. Hunger occupies first the peasant, then his wife, then three of his children, one by one, by order of age from eldest to youngest. They succumb to it. The fourth child, puling, filthy, bloated with terror, crawls out from under his mother’s breast toward the sound of clanging coming from outside the hut. He crawls toward the light which reflects off an aluminium pail, and crawling forward as the line of people crawls forward, he comes to the head of the line. Rising to his knees, he extends his hand. It shakes. He cries out when rice is poured onto his hand, so hot it burns. He spills it.
Eventually, this child returns to his father’s home. Home is a place he knows nothing about. The rubber-tree farming he’s learned is of little use to him now. Between 1951 and 1967 he marries, becomes a father, and struggles against the droughts of ’51, ’65 and ’66. In 1967 he dies. He is the first to go. After him go his wife, his first child (a son), then his second child (a daughter), and so on. The second-to-last child is the only one to survive. He stands at the head of a line and holds out his hand. His hand doesn’t shake. The rice is so hot it steams. His hand doesn’t spill it; he doesn’t scrabble in the dirt. He laps at the rice in his hand till his tongue scrapes blistered skin.
His name is Chandu. His father was Dewa. He discovers his mother’s name when he is fourteen. He reads ‘Sukki’ in the death registry kept at the tehsildar’s office. He’s grown up without knowing his siblings’ names, or even how many of them there were. The aunt in whose home he has sheltered says, “Never mind.” But he waits many hours for the clerk to return with the necessary form so he can add to the registry the names his aunt gives him – ‘Bidde’, ‘Kosa’, ‘Podiya’, and the youngest, too young to be named, who the aunt remembers vaguely was simply called ‘Bachchi’.
He is leaving the village for the first time. It is time for the one daily bus to depart, and the clerk still has not returned with the form. Chandu can no longer wait for the clerk. He boards the bus. He sits with his elbow propped on the sill and his face set in either anger or sorrow, the aunt cannot tell. Too late, she realises it is fear. She reaches, up on her toes, to touch him. And when the bus spits smoke, she takes two steps forward with it and cannot think of what to say to reassure him.
His aunt is the old woman who prays. She prays for him.
His aunt it is, who finds me for him. By that time he is working in a hotel in the city. He wants someone from the city for his wife. And educated, he says. And just like that I am no longer a girl with a red ribbon wound in her hair. His aunt comes to the city to live with us. We become three: Chandu, his wife, his aunt. She tells me I am nearly a daughter to her. She does not tell me what she knows: the reason why she prays, even in the days when we are three and the men have not come for him.
You can close your eyes and say to yourself ‘watermelon’ or ‘football.’ They are both round things that can be burst. If you cannot picture them bursting, think instead of them being sliced open.
Chandu splashes water on the floor. The water does not puddle there, it spreads over the floor, travelling in long spokes, radiating from some lost centre. He motions his wife to observe.
“What do you see?”
“You spilled water.”
“Yes, but what is the water doing?”
“The water is flowing.”
“Why does it flow?”
“Because the floor slopes, see?”
“No, the floor may slope, but that is not why water spilled to the floor flows.”
“It seeks its level. A stone floor might first have to be worn through, but water, and anger, both seek their level.”
His wife is not impressed. Not even when he repeats the performance for each of their children in turn. Seven and a half years to give birth to three children, whom he teaches by spilling water on the floor.
She asks him what he meant when he asked for an educated wife. He speaks loftily of women who have their own story. She is amused. She has listened to him tell his father’s story and his father’s father’s story. What, she asks, happened to his mother’s story?
Chandu comes home with stitches crawling across his forehead.
Men who go to or come from the airport late at night or early in the morning are drunker than men at any other hour. The hotel is by the airport. It exists to cater to these men. The waiters are quick to step away from the tables, back as far as the far wall that they press their backs against. The men ask for more drink and curse the poor service that is huddled far away from them, back where the room is dark.
One man takes foil, and a paper that he rolls like a cigarette. They take turns, the three of them, cooking smack on more foil that they cut into shape with their cutlery knives. Later, foil lies crumpled on the table.
He tells his wife the details of what he saw. Of how the drug bubbled on this pan so thin.
“Like daal at home?”
“No, quicker, like the tadka. You have to pour it before it burns.”
“Well, suck it in through the first thing they made – the pipe.”
“I thought you said you were too far to see anything?”
She loses interest: he is making it up as he speaks. She hurries to ask him what and where and why the stitches. He tells her again about foil that lies crumpled on the table. A man, one of the three, lies crumpled on the floor. Another begins the slide from his seat to the floor. Chandu, seated on the rough concrete floor of their home, has trouble sliding his bottom along it to demonstrate.
“See, the seat is smooth, like leather, but plastic. I am the only one who approaches when the men shout.”
She can picture it. The one who is sliding to join the one on the floor leaves a wet streak on the seat as he drags the rag of himself to his knees.
“They are shouting, and though I come fast one man throws the ashtray. It is glass but it hits me like a brick.”
She touches the curving bite of thread. From his right ear it chews its way across his right eyelid and halts only on reaching the gristly meat of his brow.
The men are angry. They push past Chandu to the piano player, shout at him to play, push him from his seat, and take away the piano-seat. “Sisterfucker. Won’t play when he is told to. Now there’s no way for him to play, is there?”
His aunt is still praying. Her lips move without stopping. She holds a Styrofoam plate; it is tilted away from her; the food heaped into its compartments is in danger of spilling out. Plates lie tossed away everywhere along the footpath and in the street. Some plates have been tossed onto the rubbish pile. Above the pile, the sign on the wall says, “This Is A Holy Place. It Is Not Permitted To Urinate Here.” His aunt staggers toward the rubbish heap. Yellow dogs follow her. Some other yellow dogs chase plates, which skitter and slide from their tongues. His aunt seats herself some distance from the vigour of their begging tails.
But this is comical. How will his aunt pray and also eat?
She has not stopped praying since the evening before. The dogs watch to see what she will do. I, Chandu’s wife, sent her to the temple for the free meal. I watch from my doorway across the street.
Standing in the doorway and watching his aunt not eat, I am conscious of myself, my skin that rides the rise of my breasts, swelling to nowhere, nothing, never. He will not return. I can still breathe.
The clerk at the tehsildar’s office – not the one who failed to show up before the bus taking Chandu to the city left, but the clerk before him, actually the father of the tardy clerk – remembers the baby who survived the drought of 1967 and came crawling to extend a hand and receive rice ladled out from a pail. This clerk is retired, but comes out of retirement when the men come with their sticks and questions. He is a man who remembers – “Chandu”. He gives the name easily. He adds, “Chandu comes and goes from the city.”
In the city the men move easily, beating Chandu’s feet now. Earlier they beat his hand as if he were a school-aged child.
The clerk is an old man, but age has not robbed him of reason. His reason is his tardy son, and his tardy son’s son, who must also someday sit at the registry office and answer when asked the names of those survivors who held out their hands, unshaking.
When Chandu leaves on the bus to the city that first time, he is headed where he means to make a name for himself. And that name isn’t ‘Chandu’. He begins with a stint hauling goods, whatever goods need hauling – gas cylinders, crates of vegetables, battery blocks, air-conditioner units in need of repair, sacks of laundry thrown onto the backs of trucks in a sweeping arc from his waist, as if he were broadcasting seeds in the fields back home. The fields are burnt stubble now, but the pleasure of them is still strapped to his muscles, just like the basket of seeds he once strapped to his waist. He flings the laundry bags as if they were as light as seeds – no, lighter still, as light as chaff in the wind. He laughs in the face of the wind. He has a willing laugh. He earns a name as someone ‘willing’.
The manager submits his name for promotion from the laundry room to the bathroom. He receives training in how to stand: his bent arm becomes a towel-bar, his other arm extended, so the palm becomes a shelf for the basket of soap.
“All day I stand in a room till my feet take root and my arms grow leaves and I am nothing but a tree.”
“Try me,” his wife whispers. “Does your sap flow slow? Let me see your tree.”
She waits till the front door shuts behind him. He had said, “Careful.” He had meant for her to make sure the whole notebook – every page and even the cardboard cover – was burned. She douses the fire and reads what can still be read.
‘The Kota region.’
On another corner of the same page: ‘tea forgotten’.
‘Our Work in Urban Areas’
And in tall letters: ‘TCOC’
‘LMG, AK series, INSAS, .303’
Under the heading ‘Our Work in Urban Areas’ there is a mass of closely packed English text. She asks herself, whose notebook is this? She answers her own question. It can’t be his. She flips quickly through the half-charred pages, some of them clumped together by the water she used to put out the fire in her chula. She thinks she recognizes the names of places close to his village. Signboards she has glimpsed on the way there might have included ‘Bahmani’ and ‘Chapka’ and ‘Khorkhosa’ and ‘Jaitgiri’. She yelps softly. Here is ‘Kurandi’, his home. And she knows ‘Abhujmad’.
She doesn’t know ‘Unity of the Urban Exploited Classes’.
The word ‘requisition’ floats in silken ash, holding together just long enough for her breath to tear it. Silk soots her fingertips gray. Absently, she tucks away a loose strand of hair, leaving streaks of gray across her forehead. ‘Our Work in Urban Areas’ makes her afraid. She lights the match and touches it to the cardboard cover. It takes many tries before the wet pages burn again. Later, she sees the gray on her forehead. She scrubs her face repeatedly while her daughter stands by complaining as the bucket of water set aside for her bath is depleted.
“They called me ‘Willing.’ Now I am a dangerous thinker.”
His wife doesn’t laugh at his puffed-out chest. She doesn’t say, what dangerous, what thinker? You are a waiter. It was just yesterday you were working in the hotel bathroom. Remember, you complained they made you into a tree? She doesn’t tease him. She doesn’t say, you are a boy from Kurandi. What do you know about being a dangerous thinker?
She says, “Tell me.”
Chandu says, “It’s nothing for you to know.”
But he cannot help adding. “A hotel is a place where men come and go. Sometimes, on the same day, more than one set of VIPs. They don’t see the thinker. But I am there, I pay attention.”
Is his aunt still praying?
Once, he wakes his wife in the middle of the night. She turns to him, but he is already out of bed. He has been coming and going in the night for years now.
She turns her back to his movements in the dark. She will refuse to pack him a change of clothes, a tiffin for the road. Will he leave her with another pile of paper to burn?
But he says, “Come with me.”
“Never mind. They won’t wake. We will be back before the morning.”
“We must tell the neighbours to let the children know we will be back soon.”
“No, not the neighbours. Wake Suresh. Tell him to keep an eye on his brother and sister.”
He takes her to the Mona Lisa Apartments, up six flights of stairs to the door of Number 8. The doorbell is answered only after they ring it again and again. A man comes to the door. He is wearing a dirty vest. He leans against the doorway. His arms are heavy.
“You are late. It’s done.”
The man’s belly pushes out from underneath the vest. He pulls his vest up and scratches his belly. He lets the vest rest above the belly. His belly could be a football or a watermelon except for the thick mat of hair that covers it – jungle cover for vermin woken from their sucking sleep, fleeing along the intricate plaiting of hair that points from his belly button to the drawstring of his pants.
His aunt has been praying without pause.
I stand in my doorway and read the sign across the way, reading it for the dozenth time. “This Is A Holy Place. It Is Not Permitted To Urinate Here.” I study the rubbish heap below the sign, and try to see what it is that glistens in the dark there. I think of eyeballs plucked out, of fingernails plucked out, testicles, buttocks, the hard balls of his calves. In which rubbish heap are these scattered?
I pluck the air with my fingers.
I – my intestines, organs, skin and hair – don’t know how to measure nowhere nothing never. Where does it begin, where end? How will I order eternity? How will I live without him?
It was yesterday evening his aunt began praying. Only yesterday evening. Without stopping to think eat breathe. Now I know what she prays for. She prays that the men with their ordinary faces, with the sticks they rapped against their shoes, who said there was no need for her to worry, she prays for them to be right. It has already been a night and a morning. Now it is afternoon, and soon a whole day will have gone by. In the last hours her prayers have taken the form of bargains: all that she can suffer offered in return for an end to her suffering.
His wife brings her hands together, clasps them to stop their plucking, brings them to her mouth and bites to break the skin. They sliced his eyelids off first so he would not shut his eyes against what was being done to him. They plucked the eyes out after everything was done. Now she has ordered eternity, from beginning to end.
Between his aunt and his wife the street lies belly-up. A tear as wide as the street and longer than it is wide spills coils of black slime, torn pipes, stink. The figure of a man – attenuated, shiny from a coating of sludge – emerges, is swallowed by the sludge, and re-emerges. The figure of the man sucks air. The figure is dipped into the sludge. It emerges again. It is dipped in again and again. It emerges covered in muck. It emerges again covered in muck. It is dipped back in.
People gather. His wife cannot see past the gathered people. She needs to see if his aunt is eating. His wife leaves the doorway. She steps into the street. She draws near the crowd. She cranes to see past the line of shoulders obstructing her view. The crowd cranes to see what is below. A froth of yellow. Whole fat snakes of turd. A murmur, like one of pleasure: the crowd wonders which of what they see in the pit is theirs. The man in the hole grins his rage. He clings to the sloping sides of the pit with curled toes.
“Savages,” he shouts. “You won’t stop shitting long enough for me to clear this muck.”
He shakes his empty fist. Those at the front of the crowd step back from the spray of droplets. The crowd laughs in protest. Even as each one disclaims any interest in what lies at the man’s feet, a turd as thick as a sturdy wrist surfaces. Someone shouts about the man in the pit, “Look at him. As drunk as a…”
The man protests, but is lowered in once more. He treads the liquid sloshing at his chest, turns his head away and plunges in with his hand. Much of his face is obscured by the rag tied around his nose and mouth. Nevertheless, the crowd reads in his opaque eyes that somewhere deep in the excrement his hand has found the obstruction.
Chandu pushes past the hairy-bellied man at the door of Number 8.
“I was told to come here.”
He pulls her in by her hand. Her elbow brushes the man’s belly. She stumbles, then she is past him, and still pulled by Chandu’s hand she passes through the corridor, past the open doors of two or three other rooms, till she halts in front of a shut door.
A mewling calls to her from the other side. She pushes the door open. Her husband and the man confer behind her. She can hear the man urging her husband to “take it”. She enters the room. It is bare. A sheet on the floor. A girl on the sheet. She is too still. The baby is belly down on her belly. The baby moves. The baby is tied to her still. The blue-grey chord draped along the girl’s side slides into her between her thighs. Now the girl’s chest rises and falls. The newborn slips forward on her belly.
“Let me help you.” She races out the room. “There is nothing in the room. You haven’t given me anything to work with.” She darts back in. “You must push. You are not done yet.”
The girl turns sadly to her.
“Push. There is more that must come out. You must not give up.”
The girl on the floor looks at her with embarrassment. “I cannot do more.”
“You have done a lot. You can do more.”
“No, I can’t. What I want to do… what I want… I must remember.” The voice is young, though the eyes are sunken and lines run down the sides of her face.
The wife calls to her husband. “Give me cloth and water.” No one comes. She wipes the girl’s face with the end of her pallu. The lines are there still, and tears pour down the earlier trail of tears.
The girl moves her lips. “I want to remember something I have forgotten.”
“Push now. We will remember later. A cup of tea when you are done and we will sit together and remember.”
The girl murmurs, “Something I have forgotten.”
“Later. There will be plenty of time.”
“So many things.”
“Tell me then what you have forgotten.”
“So many things.”
“What is so important that you must remember it now?”
“No one thing. Anything. If I could remember just one thing.”
“You must listen to me now. I will use my hands to pull it from you. And when I tell you to push, you push. It must not tear. Do you understand?”
“My sister was given a hat. I hated her for it. I cannot remember it now, or her face when she wore it. I don’t know what age we were. I was never sent to school. Although two girls in our village were allowed to go by their parents. My father said it’s too far for a girl to walk.”
“You must listen to me. I want to help you.”
“No, that wasn’t what I was trying to remember. The food we ate, I don’t remember it, but I know it was good. A man used to come on a bicycle; he pulled a box behind him in which he fried sweets. We never had money to buy from him. He never looked at us. But when the day was over he threw us bits of fried dough left over from frying his sweets. We held our skirts up to catch what he threw. And we ran separate ways to eat what we got. I remember he came many days apart. I used to pretend he came only for me.”
His wife pushes through the crowd. She must find a way to cross the street. She must go to his aunt. She must catch his aunt by the arm and lift her from the ground and tell her to stop praying.
Her three children will return from school soon. She must do all the things she always does. She must first walk the aunt home. Then, leaving her there she must walk through the many small lanes to the main road and wait there under the Ashoka tree, emerge from its shade when the bus pulls up, take the schoolbag from her youngest, and take his hand in hers, and walk behind the elder two as they argue. She must breathe.
And what if the bus were to start moving suddenly, even as I reach for the hand of my youngest? What if two trucks roll by, approaching slowly from opposite ends and speeding up suddenly, even as I reach for his hand? What if my child is not a child, but an object, round like a watermelon, fit to be burst? What if the bus and the trucks and the very street were to take that object in their grip? How will I stop them? Will I reach my child, take him by the hand, and face the approaching trucks, the suddenly departing bus, the street rearing up, opening its mouth? What if, as the street opens up, as the bus departs suddenly and the trucks rush in at great speed, what if I am faster still? Will I reach him just in time, will I be able to act in that space of a second just before the end?
How can she know if she will be enough?
She is jostled by the crowd as it disperses. A man brushes past her. The point of her elbow stabs his belly. The hole in the ground is at her feet. This hole that is not allowed to heal. It was just a few months ago that they last opened it, tearing at the scab that had not healed since its last opening. It was a few months ago they last dipped the man into the sludge. And there was a time a few months before that, and so on, backwards in time. She must cross this street somehow and bring the old woman home.
Chandu steps into the room, leaving the door open behind him. The scissors in his hands are heavy, the handles of gold, like those a tailor would use. His wife wonders if he has awoken someone in another flat, rung some doorbell in the dark. Could she and he go door to door, ask if someone in the building knows how to help this girl on the sheet? Lifting the child from the girl’s belly, her husband passes the scissors to her. She cuts the resistant rope, using both her hands to wield the scissors. The blades are loose, they do not meet. She tries repeatedly till the scissors chew through the rope.
Chandu takes the scissors back from her and then takes the baby. He leaves the room with the baby clasped to him.
“Maybe,” his wife calls after him, “she will ask for the baby.”
Chandu keeps heading away, but she can see he has heard. She can see he is shaking his head, no.
She sits holding the girl’s hand. She should get up and clean, make the promised tea. The girl has worked hard, but she has worked harder: the placenta is delivered. All will be well. She doesn’t listen as the girl murmurs to herself. She waits for Chandu to call her. But it is the girl who raises her voice.
“The government made my father sign the paper saying he had burned his own house. I was there. They beat his head with a stick. Only once or twice. We all started crying, my mother and all of us children were crying and begging him to sign. So he signed. The whole village was on fire. One by one everything turned black before us. One by one everyone signed. That was the government – the men who made us sign. After they left, the other men came back. The same ones who had come before, the same ones the government asked us about.”
“They told us”, the girl continues, “they told us, there is no life hereafter. This is the only life. We must live this life while we have our chance. They came to talk to us after the government made us burn down our village. They said it again, if we must die, let us first live this life.”
His wife is afraid to ask, but she bends down to the girl, “Was my husband one of those men?”
“The man who just came in, he is your husband? I have not seen him before. Is he one of the city comrades?
“The government gave us some bricks to build new homes. But after we built homes there was nothing left to do. The land was burnt. Even the grain for planting was burnt. The government wanted the land, but not for planting. Many boys and girls left the place where we were told to build a new village. They were going to learn how to use guns. I too went with them.”
“You learned how to use a gun?”
“No, I went because I was in love. Why shouldn’t I have fallen in love?”
“It is alright. It is a good thing to find a person to love.”
“Everyone was gone by then. My mother said, at least I have you. But I was already leaving. I was already in love.”
“He is good to you?”
“He brought me to the city, didn’t he? When it was my time he gave me a choice. To go home to my mother, to give birth there, to raise the baby there, to look out at the burnt land. Or to come here and give the baby away. Where but here could I come? Here I will leave the baby. At least this way I can be with him.”
His wife holds the girl’s hand till the girl pulls it away, extracting each finger one by one. The girl is shy again.
“Will you give me something to drink and eat? I have never been so thirsty and hungry in my life.”
Chandu closes the cardboard flap gently. The man with the vest looks away. The baby makes snuffling sounds. His wife fears the baby will be smothered by the towel they have arranged around it in the box. Prodding his wife, Chandu hurries her down the stairs. In the tarmac parking lot outside, two young men laugh together. It is 4 am. What are they doing leaning against a car and laughing? Chandu and she hurry toward the men. She sucks in her breath. The box is tucked under her husband’s arm. They are past the men. She is not surprised that the taxi is waiting where they left it – how many hours ago was it? They seat themselves inside. Chandu passes the box to her. She holds the box on her lap. She removes the lid. She crooks her little finger and offers it for the baby to suck. They drive for a few minutes. The taxi stops. She doesn’t say I cannot. Just before he reaches past her to open the door, she tells him, “I promised her we would keep the child ourselves.” He pushes the door open. She is relieved.
They are in front of a big building. It is lit up inside. There is an old watchman inside the thick glass doors ahead of her. She pulls her pallu over her face and hurries to the door. She leaves the box outside the door and returns to the taxi and enters. When she looks back, she sees the watchman has not moved.
She says, “Stop. The watchman hasn’t seen. He cannot see outside, into the dark.” But the taxi starts. “Soon,” she wills aloud, “let the morning come soon.”
His aunt lays her plate in front of a dog. Two others look on longingly. They don’t edge in. They wait patiently.
His wife has circled around the rupture in the street. She is almost upon her husband’s aunt. She calls out, “It is a shame you gave the food to the dog. There will be no food cooked in the house today. Even the children must go hungry.”
His aunt turns away from the young woman striding across the street. She fixes her eyes on the man emerging from the hole. She moves her lips in prayer.
Mridula Koshy is the author of Not Only the Things That Have Happened (2012). Her short story collection, If It Is Sweet (2009; 2011) won the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Award.