In ‘Friday Fictioneers’ last week, I posted “City Life”, a story about a young girl who has grown up in rural India, and come to Kolkata to live with her Aunt. As I wrote, I realised that the material from which I was drawing had huge potential. So when several people commented that they would like to read more, I was only too pleased to promise a fuller version. I promised to try to post it on Monday (yesterday).
I failed! Please accept my apologies.
However, I have now finished the first part of the longer story. It’s about 2000 words, and it covers the period when Makshirani is still in the village, up to the time she leaves it.
I hope you enjoy it.
Here are a few notes for a couple of details that may be unfamiliar to readers in Europe and the USA.
American and UK readers should note that in India you shake your head to indicate assent, and nod to dissent. Note, too, that this is only approximately correct, and the gestures seem to be used more flexibly than our simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
‘Tharra’ is a very potent illicit liquor.
The girl who went to Kolkata
It was already hot. A hen scratched in the patch of scrub that had grown where the village water pump dribbled after every use. The older women of the village had used the pump in the cool of the early morning; now it was the turn of the girls.
“Makshirani – could you read my letter to me?”
Shama looked imploringly at her friend.
Makshirani nodded her head.
“I’m sorry, Shama, I promised mami I would be home quickly with the water.”
“I’ll carry your water if you like, and you can read as we walk. It’s only a short letter.” Shama held up a single sheet of paper. Makshirani glanced at it. It didn’t look too hard; she might be able to read it.
“Alright, I’ll try. But you mustn’t dawdle.”
“It’s from my brother. See! There’s his name – Abhoy! I can read that!”
Makshirani hid her agitation. She took the page and handed her five gallon plastic container to Shama. “Fill it nice and full now,” she said.
Makshirani read slowly, spelling the words out in her head before saying them out loud.
“Dear Father and Mother, and dear sister Shama,”
Shama clapped her hands with glee. “He’s written to me too!”
“Keep pumping, Shama. I mustn’t be late home,” Makshirani chided.
“I am living with Uncle Pinkesh. He takes…” Makshirani stumbled over the next word, “exce… excelle… excellent care of me. I work in the factory for…” Makshirani stopped again. “I don’t understand these words. I think perhaps it’s the name of the business?”
“Go on,” said Shama.
“We make clothes for the British ‘Topshop’. It is hard work, but it pays well. I have expenses, but there is some money left so I am sending you 1,000 rupees. I hope I will be able to send more next month.
Your ever-loving son and brother,
“Thank you, dear Makshirani! I felt as though I could hear my brother’s voice!” Shama stopped pumping. “There. All done.”
Makshirani handed back the letter. “It was only short. I shall be in time. It’s alright, Shama, I’ll carry the water.” She picked up the container. “Ai! It’s heavy!”
The container bumped against her thigh as she carried it through the village to the small farm her parents owned. She switched it from hand to hand as her arms tired. As she passed Pralay’s house, she lowered her gaze. There was something about him that frightened her, that left her feeling soiled when she knew he had been looking at her. And yet he was a rich man. He had a tractor to pull his plough rather than a water buffalo. For a girl without a dowry, like herself, he would be a fantastic match. Even the thought made her feel sick.
In the early evening, the quiet time of the day, she and her mother were preparing the family meal.
“Mami,” she said. “I heard today that Shama’s family received some money from Abhoy. A thousand rupees it was. And he’s going to send them more next month too!”
Her mother, Joti, smiled at her.
“They are fortunate. Perhaps they will buy some hens and sell the eggs.”
“Mami! Don’t make fun of me. It’s surely a good thing when a son earns money for his family?”
Joti chopped onions, garlic, tomatoes.
“Pay attention, girl. Stir the dahl before it burns. What are you thinking of?”
“I was thinking that a daughter could go to the city and earn money too.”
Joti nodded her head.
“The city is a place of loose morals. No place for a well brought up girl.”
“Aunt Abhilasha lives in Kolkata.”
“She is rich. It is different for the rich. Do you remember the taxi that brought her from the station when she visited us? What a fine car!”
“Dark red, and shiny. And the driver was cross because it got dusty from driving the road that comes to the village.”
They looked at each other and giggled.
“Aunt Abhilasha might look after me if I went to live in Kolkata?”
Joti stretched out her hand and stroked Makshirani’s shoulder.
“Dear daughter,” she said quietly, and sighed. She remembered how she had needed to fight her husband’s family to keep Makshirani when she had been born. ‘What good is a girl?’ they had yelled. ‘We have no money for a girl. Who will she marry with no dowry?’ She had fought like a tigress until they had let her keep the baby.
“How will you make a marriage in the city? Pralay will make you a fine husband, and he has said over and over that he wants no dowry. You can live like a queen!”
A tear rolled down Makshirani’s cheek.
“Mami. I don’t like Pralay. He makes me feel…” She shuddered. “I would rather die.”
“He’s not a bad man, little honey bee. His mother is well-liked and respectable too.”
“Stir the dahl, little one, or I’ll give you the burnt crust from the bottom of the pot for your meal.” Joti pretended to make a fierce face at Makshirani. In spite of herself, the girl giggled.
“Just in time. I can hear the men coming.” Joti hugged her tightly, then pushed her away.
As she slept, Makshirani was half-aware of raised voices. ‘Why is mami shouting at papa?’ she wondered, in the space between dreams, before sinking back into darkness and peace.
Joti worked Makshirani hard next morning.
“Come on, girl, you are slow, slow, slow!”
Makshirani bit her tongue and tried her hardest. When Joti was in this mood it was the only sensible thing to do. But at last Joti said, “Enough! Let’s have something to eat.”
They sat down under the shade of the tree next to the house, each with a piece of bread and the scrapings from the previous night’s dahl, and a beaker of water. Joti sat close to Makshirani, pressed against her. Makshirani sighed and leaned her head against Joti’s shoulder. Little stirred in the noontide heat. There was silence except for the buzzing of insects and the rasping of the goat’s teeth as she grazed nearby. Makshirani wrinkled her nose at the strong smell of the goat.
“You can read a little, can’t you?” asked Joti.
“Just a little bit, Mami. I hope you don’t disapprove?”
Joti nodded, and sat up straighter.
“Times change. Maybe girls need to be able to read nowadays. You aren’t content with the old ways, and why should you be?”
She turned to Makshirani and looked at her intently.
“After lunch, I want you to go to the teacher’s house. He will give you a half hour reading lesson and a half hour English lesson. You must do this every day. I have made an arrangement with him. But you must promise me you will work hard, even harder than you’ve worked this morning.”
Makshirani sat still for several seconds.
“But, Mami, how can we afford it?”
“It’s the last of my dowry, little one. I had thought to keep it in case one of us was sick, but – well, it wouldn’t go far in paying for a doctor. This seems the right way to spend it.”
“I will work harder than I have ever worked, Mami. Thank you so much!” Makshirani squealed with excitement.
For the next four weeks Makshirani studied as often as she could. Her father scowled when she took out her school books in the evening, but her brother sat down with her and they worked through the exercises together. Even when the rice was sprouting in the paddies and Makshirani had to hoe in the fields all day, she found time to practise her lessons.
It was while she was hoeing near the edge of a paddy that she noticed movement near the ditch. She moved a little away, slowly, cautiously.
“Stand still!” The voice was her father’s.
Makshirani froze. A sinuous head rose above the crop, looking at her. It seemed to rise and rise until its eyes seemed almost on a level with her own. It had a hood that was puffed out. Makshirani stayed very still and silent, despite the panic that filled her until her hands and feet tingled with the suppressed urge to run. It was a king cobra. If it bit her…
Then the snake lowered itself and disappeared back into the ditch.
Makshirani released her breath, a long, quiet sigh of relief. Her arms and legs felt weak and started to shake.
“To see such a snake, that is a good sign,” said her father, “A very auspicious sign. Maybe your mother is right after all. Now, away to your lessons!”
Makshirani ran, stumbling, over the clods of earth, legs still clumsy with fright.
That evening, her father and mother sent her brother out and talked to her.
“Your mother tells me you will not do as we wish and marry Pralay. Is that true?”
“Papa, if you wish, I shall obey. But I dread what it will be like.”
“It would mean prosperity for your family. It would mean a respectable life for you.” He fidgeted. “If you refuse, you won’t have another offer. You will live life alone and childless. Folk will look down on you. Pralay will be angry. He may decide to ruin me in revenge.”
Makshirani hung her head. Silent tears trickled from her eyes.
“I will do what you say, Papa. If I must marry him, then I must.”
Joti glanced at her husband and took Makshirani’s hand.
“You are a good obedient daughter,” she said.
Makshirani’s father cleared his throat.
“Your mother has another plan. I have said ‘No’ to her, until today. But maybe she is right. To see that cobra look at you and then depart, that is a very good omen. To ignore it would be to risk the wrath of Naga, even mighty Shiva himself, maybe.”
He gestured to Joti that she should speak.
Joti stroked Makshirani’s hand that she was holding.
“We have exchanged letters with Aunt Abhilasha, and she has agreed to be your guardian if you go to Kolkata. She will arrange work for you, and you will live in her house. You must do as she tells you, just as you would do as we tell you. Will you do this?”
“Me go and live in the city? Away from you, Mami?”
“I shall miss you my beautiful girl, my busy little honey bee. But it will be good for you, and when you are settled perhaps you may send some money home.”
“Will it be forever, Mami?”
“Forever is a long time, little one. Who knows what the gods will send? But this will be better for you than marriage to Pralay. A marriage where love is impossible is no marriage at all. You will be safer away, even in the city.”
Makshirani’s father sighed.
“It is a pity,” he began, only to fall silent as Joti glared at him.
“You must go to Kolkata as soon as possible, the day after tomorrow, before anybody realises. I will take you to the train station, and Aunt Abhilasha will send someone to meet you when you arrive.”
Makshirani thought. A little tingle of excitement began. The city! What might happen there? Maybe she could even study, if she worked hard enough.
“Why must I go so soon, Papa?”
He waved away the question. “Your mami will tell you. I must see to the animals.”
He went out of the room. They heard him pick up the bottle of tharra from the shelf by the door as he left.
“Makshirani, dearest daughter. We are afraid that if Pralay learns you are going, he may try to make you his wife by force. If he did that, you would have to marry him, or be disgraced for ever. Do you understand? So you must tell no-one that you are going.”
“Not even Shama?”
“Not even Shama.”
The last thing Makshirani heard before she slept that night was her father stumbling in, dragging his feet, his breathing stertorous.
The last thing she thought was “I’m going to live in Kolkata!”