“And then it seemed to me that gradually
The sun grew dark, stars started to appear,
All weeping dismally.
And I saw birds in flight fall from the air,
And felt the whole world shake.”
New Life, Dante Alighieri
Dunya woke to an unnerving silence. She couldn’t place the exact reason for her waking while her gaze sought a familiar object in the dark. Dunya wasn’t scared as long as she was surrounded by the mosquito net, the magical gossamer shielding her from bugs and other unsavoury creatures that might take shape in the swirling black beyond the edges of the bed.
Then, she heard the birds, like the laughter of strangers echoing down sinuous alleyways or the faint tooting of a train, invisible to the eye but unmistakable to the ear. A cacophony soon descended upon the house. The birds were scratching their claws against the tin roof and squawking with urgency. It was as if they were brushing their wings just above her protective net. The girl instinctively grabbed for her mother’s hand. Her hand fell on cold sheets.
Every night, before falling asleep, Dunya tied the loose portion of her mother’s sari around her wrists. If she had displeased her mother by performing poorly in her studies, if she sensed that her mother was having one of her morose days, or just in case she had a bad dream, the end of her mother’s sari knotted around her wrist was reassurance that when she awoke, everything would still be in place.
It was a feeble life line, she knew. Dunya sensed that catastrophe could strike at any moment. The earth would shake, the streets would split wide, and swallow up her small world.
She suffered under an unshakeable premonition that the engine of her life was heading slowly toward a derailment. Its anticipation worked through her frail frame like a wily cancer. Teachers wrote letters complaining of her lack of attention. She was uninterested in playing with other children. A persistent cough kept her in bed too many days out of the year. Dunya’s large, deep set eyes were always searching for her mother.
When Dunya was a toddler, her father died in an accident at the gun and shell factory he worked. She had studied his smile in the frayed black and white photo fixed to her mother’s dresser mirror, and wondered if her mother also smiled back then.
Since her father’s death, Dunya and her mother lived on a fixed budget. Her father’s employers at the gun and shell factory, where he’d toiled for two decades, provided a paltry stipend and had allowed mother and child to remain in factory housing for five years. That grace period was nearing an end.
For 150 years the gun and shell factory in north Calcutta churned out the tools of British expansion in Southasia, supplying the guns that would be pointed at freedom fighters, perfecting the bullets destined to explode in their chests. More than 60 years after independence, the factory was under Indian ownership and still contributing to modern warfare by manufacturing parts for aircraft missiles, rocket-launchers and shells. But its importance to the Indian economy was much diminished and the imperial fortress, surrounded by 30 feet high walls, crowned by coils of barbed wire and shards of glass, sat forgotten.
The factory’s sprawling executive residences were built by the East India Company in 1801. The house issued to Dunya’s father was a dilapidated relic of British luxury: mosquito netting on the outer doors, high ceilings for the rising heat, western-style toilets, skylights in every room, and not one, but two romantic long verandas at the front and back of the house.
These Western amenities, however, in cash-strapped Indian hands quickly fell to decline. Generations of pigeons had nested in the skylights and beneath the tin roof. Their feathers and fallings perpetually made a mess along the verandas. The flushing mechanism of the toilets had long broken and buckets of water needed to be dumped in the bowl after every visit. The mosquito barriers on the doors were clogged with dust and spiders had spun elaborate webs where the netting had torn.
Then there was the soot. Most of the residences in the compound employed a cook, a wash woman, a garbage man, and a cleaning woman who twice a day swept and washed the floors of the accumulating dirt and soot the factory vomited from its three smoke stacks. Dunya’s mother, with her stipend and little earnings from tutoring the children in the neighborhood, did most of the chores, the cooking, the laundry and the wash. She had hired a cleaning lady, but she only came once in the morning.
By afternoon, the soot poured in through the gaping skylights, drifted along the verandas, covered the lacquered, red floors, tumbled through the corridors, and swirled opportunistically around Dunya, just waiting for her diminutive frame to inhale. Sickness nipped and sniped at her lungs like those unshakeable street mutts on Calcutta streets. She had developed a steady hacking cough. Her nasal passages were perpetually congested. In moments of fear or excitement, the girl’s chest tightened. Her breath became quick and short and sometimes she lost consciousness.
Dunya in her watchful way knew her illnesses added to her mother’s stress. In recent weeks, she had caught threads of hushed telephone conversations. “But we have no where to go,” her mother had pleaded gulping back tears on the phone with someone. Strange men had visited and left letters. The cleaning lady had stormed off and stopped coming entirely after her mother had asked for yet another extension in paying her.
So, when Dunya felt a cough or a fainting spell coming on, she tried to muffle the sound or hide in the bathroom until the dizziness subsided. Her mother kept on cooking and cleaning, and now also began sweeping the floors, as if she had been doing it all along. But Dunya had noticed that her mother had broken several plates and glasses in recent days. Her cooking was hurried and lacked basic ingredients like salt. She woke up well before the usual hour that the clock clanked them awake. And when Dunya went searching for her, she often found her mother slumped in a chair on the veranda, tears streaming down her face, staring at those smoke stacks billowing black smoke in the horizon.
Watching her on the veranda, Dunya remembered why she had begun tying her mother’s sari around her wrists. Once when she had been naughty – Dunya couldn’t remember what it was but it must have been something really bad – her mother had scolded her harshly. Dunya kept apologising, but her mother replied, “Sorry? One day, I’ll fly away to heaven. Then, you’ll be sorry.”
Ever since, Dunya had imagined her mother flitting up above their house, above the shards of glass on the compound walls, higher than the factory, over the smoke stacks, beyond the black smoke marring the white clouds, until she could no longer see her mother or visualise what lay beyond.
And so, Dunya had no choice but to keep tireless vigil. She did her schoolwork beside her mother on the veranda. She kept on her mother’s heels while she did chores. At school, when the two were separated, she kept looking out of the classroom windows and scanning the sky, in case she glimpsed her mother’s flight. She had been sent to the principal’s office numerous times for “daydreaming” and when asked to explain her lack of attention, the girl just remained quiet.
During the night, Dunya knew she was most vulnerable. She startled awake again and again to make sure her mother’s sari was still knotted around her wrist. This way, if her mother tried to fly away, the sari would tug her awake and may be she could stop her, plead with her to stay, or at least grab on to her ankles and fly away with her.
The gun and shell factory emitted a continual, high-pitched wail. It came from deep within its bowels like some kind of wartime horn. The residents of the factory had grown so used to the sound that they no longer noticed: the factory’s cries had become a comforting drone, a soundtrack for the normal pulse of daily life.
For new visitors though, the unrelenting shrill could be physically debilitating. When Dunya’s parents first moved into the facility, the factory sirens had given her mother migraines. She was vomiting for days.
The widow no longer suffered physically from the sound, but the frequencies had lassoed her will. She found she thought differently when away from the complex. When returning from her daily shopping or after dropping her daughter off at school, she never wanted to turn off the main thoroughfare on to the narrow dirt street leading back to the compound. She wanted to keep walking, stay on the bus or tell the rickshaw driver to keep cycling, with no particular destination in mind. But the minute those sonic tendrils reached her ear, they didn’t let her get very far. That deep warbling shot through her brain, pierced her thoughts, ran down her spine, and forced her feet to make the appropriate turn.
Every step toward the factory was a step toward a crumbling life. To step away would be another kind of failing, she knew, but may be the guilt would fade with distance. With tortured steps, the widow always made her way back behind those barbed-wire tipped walls. On her walks back to the compound, she’d be filled with fear and self-loathing, angry at her fate, cursing the factory looming at the end of the road. She wanted to cut off the tops of those smoke stacks that showered its oppressive soot all over her life. She wanted to plug her ears to its alarm, forcing her to keep to its beat, pulling her back again and again.
On these walks, the train sometimes provided a few minutes of relief. The locomotive cut through the narrow road, carrying coal and raw materials to and from the factory. When the train was passing, all traffic on the access road stopped. The rattling of rusty cargo cars and the ceremonious toot of its horn scrambled the call of the factory. The widow watched the slum children jump on to cars, some hitching a joy ride, others snatching scrap metal piled high on the open carriages. She would close her eyes and feel the hot breath of the train on her face, listen to the spark of the wheels against the tracks, and jolt back to those nearly forgotten moments, when she had found contentment in-between places, when the uncertainty of an approaching destination had been exhilarating, and a journey’s end was no end at all but the start of another adventure.
She would relive her antics as a young girl in college, when she had skipped her exams and hopped on a train to see her boyfriend in the next town. She would revisit that time as a newly married woman when she traveled by train with her husband to the Himalaya. When they woke up in their compartments and peeked out from under piles of blankets, they found frost on the windows. It was the first time she had seen snow. Sometimes she’d be transported to that ill-conceived three-day train journey to Delhi to see her mother when she was nine months pregnant. She had stopped each hawker that came on the train car and had gorged on every kind of street snack she craved. It was her mother-in law’s firm belief that all that jolting around on the train, compounded by the spicy food, had forced her contractions on the last leg of that journey. Had there not been a hospital near the Delhi rail station, Dunya could have very well been born on a train.
The widow relished these passing mirages of her life lived, but she knew she’d never catch them. She wasn’t quick or brave like the slum children to jump onto a speeding train, and these types of trains never stopped.
The day the sirens stopped, the widow woke to the silence, unwrapped her sari with lithe fingers, untucking yards and yards of fabric from her petticoat, taking care not to wake the sleeping child tied to the other end. Out on the veranda, she watched the birds confusedly take flight before dawn and listened to their frenzied squawks. Soon, Dunya was beside her, in her usual needy way.
Wakened by the silence and frightened by the birds, she had reached for her mother. When she saw the sari in a heap beside her, panic set in. With fear stabbing at her stomach and tears in her eyes, Dunya had bolted into the darkness and out onto the veranda. She was incandescently relieved to find her mother, standing in her petticoat and blouse, staring at the thousands of birds scrambling across the sky.
“What’s wrong with them?” Dunya asked, peering through the corner of her eye trying to read her mother’s expression.
“They heard the silence,” her mother said. “Don’t you hear it?”
Together, mother and daughter witnessed a dream sequence. After the birds calmed their frenzy and scattered into the fog, they stood together on the veranda, blanketed in a silence they’d never known. In that early morning hush, Dunya realized that her mother hadn’t flown away, and felt quite silly for being so scared of such a thing all this time. She reached out and held her mother’s hand. The mother startled at the daughter’s touch. And the stillness was broken.
There had been an explosion and all factory operations were temporarily suspended, including the incessant screams of its efficiency and the virulent ash. The train, unable to enter the factory, was stalled on the tracks, blocking the access road. Personnel from the factory sent word to the compound residents that the malfunction would be fixed.
Foreseeing delays to her morning routine, the widow started her chores a little early. She laid out Dunya’s starched school uniform, packed a lunch, and served her breakfast. She noted the girl ate her morning meal of warm milk and cereal with more relish than usual.
They dressed for the day, mother in a crisp white cotton sari and Dunya in her stiff purple uniform, and made their way, hand-in-hand, down the access road out of the compound and on to the main road. Since the road was always congested with cows, rickshaws, trucks and taxis, the widow was strict about Dunya holding her hand at all times.
Today, due to the incident at the factory, the dirt road was empty, save for a few bored slum children agitating a goat with sticks. Still, out of habit, the two held hands until they came upon the hibernating train blocking their path. Dunya wondered how they could possibly get to the other side. “Who knows when this thing will start up?” she asked hopefully, “May be we should just go back?”
But the widow was already talking to a sinewy rickshaw driver who had been helping people cross the tracks under the train. The rickshaw driver was assuring the widow that the train’s conductor would certainly sound an alarm well before the thing started again. Dunya could feel the steam from the idling locomotive on her legs, waiting for the “go” signal from the factory.
She saw her mother stuff a few rupees into the rickshaw driver’s sunburnt hands, and nodded her head toward the girl. Dunya nervously started toward her mother but was intercepted by the rickshaw driver, who gently took her miniature hands in his callused palms and flashed a smile, bearing a set of irregularly-spaced teeth stained by betel leaves. He motioned for her to duck and started drawing her beneath the train. She looked back for her mother, but Dunya could only see the bottom of her white sari.
She tried to calm her racing heart and squeezed the hand of her guide as they crawled through the forbidden terrain, trying not to wake a lightly sleeping beast. Its innards hissed and pulsated, and dripped poisonous black goop all around. She couldn’t help but look at its engorged intestines and wonder how many unsuspecting passers-by the monster had swallowed and digested, never to be seen again.
But the girl and her expert guide didn’t fall prey to the beast’s appetite. On the other side of the tracks, Dunya tried to catch her breath. The ordeal over, the beast looked like a train again. “Aren’t you going to go back for my mother?” she asked. The rickshaw driver shrugged, “She’s not coming, miss. She told me to take you straight to school.”
Dunya snatched her hand away from the driver’s. The voices of the slum children were ringing in her ears. The main road was congested with morning traffic and drivers were impatient with their horns. The factory took up its siren song without warning. Smoke began petering out of the smoke stacks. The train awoke and sounded a long wail. The air was thick with heat and soot. Dunya looked up at the sky but there was nothing. No clouds, no birds. Just blue, the sun and heat.
~ T Franz is a New York-based writer.