The dove on the pergola – progress 180813

The Dove on the Pergola – progress 180813

This is a blog post about the progress of my novel “The Dove on the Pergola”. The novel is about a young Indian woman, Makshirani, who has lived until she was sixteen years old in a village in Bengal, and who then moves to the big city of Kolkata.

To help me develop the characters and set them in a believable background, I am writing short stories; none, some or all of these stories may appear in the final novel. This story, “Flowers” comes from early in the novel when Makshirani has been living in Kolkata for a couple of months. 

Mallick_Ghat_Flower_Market,_Kolkata_03

© Bernard Gagnon

Flowers

The city air felt cool to Makshirani as she, Tarangi, and Neerudhi left the factory, where the operation of hundreds of machines kept the rooms hot and stuffy. Makshirani wished she had a jacket like Tarangi, or didn’t feel the cold like Neerudhi. She coughed as she breathed in the exhaust fumes that loitered in the still air.

“I hate the cold. Let’s go out and have some fun tomorrow,” exclaimed Tarangi.

“Oh, yes!” Neerudhi clapped her hands. “My horoscope says it is an auspicious day for romance. Perhaps I shall meet someone I like and my parents will approve of him.”

“You must come too, Makshirani. I won’t let you stay at home again. You’ll get dull!”

“I want to send as much money home as I can,” began Makshirani.

“We’ll go to the Millennium Park. It’s only ten rupees to go in, and the bus fare’s only eight rupees each way. Twenty-six rupees, that’s all. You can afford that I’m sure.”

Makshirani was tempted. She’d sent a thousand rupees home in her first month, and two thousand in her second. The thought of doing something different for a day was appealing.

“What’s it like,” she asked.

“It’s beautiful. It lies right next to Mother Ganga. There are trees and birds…”

“And men,” giggled Neerudhi, “and fairground rides. I’m going to go on the swing boats…”

“I didn’t know Mother Ganga was near Kolkata?” said Makshirani.

“Oh, yes, it’s one of the mouths of the delta, but the river’s called the Hooghly River here.”

Makshirani thought back to the week before she’d fled to Kolkata. Her mother, Joti, had taken her to the river, poured water on her head and prayed.

“This water with my blessing will flow down to Mother Ganga, and then down to the sea. It will bring you good fortune if you work hard to deserve it.”

‘Maybe some of my mami’s blessing will be flowing past while I’m visiting,’ thought Makshirani, as she walked with her friends in Kolkata. The idea warmed her.

“It sounds delightful,” she said, “and I’d love to go.”

Next morning, Sunday, at a quarter past six, Makshirani was deeply asleep. Her mouth twitched and her fingers fidgeted; her eyelids shivered with the movement of the eyes beneath. The room where the three girls lived was bright with early sunshine.

Suddenly Makshirani’s hands jerked forward and her eyes opened abruptly.

“Oh!” she exclaimed.

Tarangi, already dressed, turned to her.

“Namaste.”

“Namaste,” answered Makshirani, still half-asleep. “Will there be somewhere I can buy flowers on the way to the park?” She sat up, suddenly awake. “Flowers. Yes, I was dreaming about flowers. I was standing on the river bank and I wanted to give something to Mother Ganga, but I didn’t have anything. I was sad, and then my mami came smiling to me with her arms full of flowers. She gave me some, and together we cast them on the waters, on Mother Ganga.” Makshirani looked both happy and wistful.

Tarangi smiled at her.

“We’ll buy some on the way,” she said.

At Tarangi’s urging they were out of the house and on the bus by seven o’clock.

“We’re going to get off at the Howrah Bridge stop,” Tarangi said.

“Why?” demanded Neerudhi. “We’ll have to walk miles!”

“Don’t exaggerate, it’s not even one mile…”

“We’ll be exhausted!”

“It’s not even one mile, and we’re going to the Mullick Ghat flower market.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to buy flowers to offer to Mother Ganga.”

Makshirani looked gratefully at Tarangi. If Neerudhi had thought they were making the detour for Makshirani’s sake, she would have been grumbling about it all day.

It didn’t take long to reach their destination. The small footbridge in front of the pumping station was already thronging with people as they walked across it. And then they were in the market.

The scent of the flowers mingled with the smell of sap from the carpet of bruised leaves on the path. Vendors shouted, prospective buyers frowned and made gestures of negation as they haggled. Young men barged past, with great armfuls of blooms that they were carrying to purchasers’ vehicles. A trolley overflowing with marigold garlands came flying round a corner, forcing the girls to jump out of the way.

“I’ve never seen so many flowers,” gasped Makshirani, “It’s like a festival!”. There were anemones, camellias, and carnations, daffodils, tulips, and poppies, sweet peas, ranunculus and wax flowers.

Tarangi strode confidently in front. Makshirani stayed close to her; she would have loved to loiter and allow herself to be dazzled by the displays, but she was frightened of getting lost. Then Tarangi dived around a corner into a small alley and stopped at a stall.

“Namaste, Maheem,” she trilled.

The young man behind the stall looked round and beamed.

“Namaste, Tarangi! Welcome, cousin! How can I help?”

“I know you only sell in bulk, Maheem, but have you a few nice blooms that I and my friend can buy? We want to make offering to Mother Ganga.”

“Tarangi! You know my customers will lynch me if I steal their retail trade! But look here. I have some off-cuts that you could have for five rupees each.” He pulled out a couple of magnificent garlands.

“Shall we, Makshirani?”

Makshirani’s eyes opened wide. Such a beautiful offering for only five rupees! She fumbled in her purse for the coins.

“Thank you,” she breathed, as she took the garland of orange-yellow marigolds. “Oh, the scent reminds me of home and festivals!” Her eyes were lustrous with unshed tears. Maheem’s sharp, lively features softened.

“You are new to the city?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Then be welcome. Namaste!”

“Maheem, thank you. Your mami would be very proud of your generosity and piety!” Tarangi was never at a loss for the right thing to say.

Maheem grinned. He was seldom accused of piety.

“I must attend to my other customers now, ladies, or I will have a stall full of wilting flowers and an empty cash till!”

As the girls rounded the corner back onto the main path through the market, Tarangi murmured to Makshirani, “These would be at least five hundred rupees each from a shop”.

Makshirani gasped. “How can Maheem sell them to us so cheaply?”

“I expect they’re yesterday’s blooms – still nice, but you can’t sell them here if you want to build a reputation.”

Makshirani looked thoughtful. Tarangi stopped walking.

“If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anybody else?”

“Not even Neerudhi?”

Especially not Neerudhi.”

The two girls looked down the path. Neerudhi was fifty metres away, ogling some lilies – or possibly the handsome young man selling them.

“Maheem is a sort of cousin. His mother and Aunt Abhilasha are – talking together.”

“Talking together? Oh. Oh! Congratulations! Maheem is very handsome!”

“It’s early days, that’s why I don’t want Neerudhi to find out.” She sighed. “I do hope it works out well; Maheem is such a kind man, and a really good businessman. Aunt Abhilasha is so good to speak for me; I’d stand no chance otherwise.”

Neerudhi spotted them, and waved.

“Come on!” she called, “I want chai and kochuri!”

“And you shall have them!” Tarangi steered them to a stall on the market’s edge. “And there is the Millenium Park. Not so far, you see, Neerudhi!”

 

 

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The Dove on the Pergola – 31st July 2018

This is a blog post about the progress of my novel “The Dove on the Pergola”. The novel is about a young Indian woman, Makshirani, who has lived until she was sixteen years old in a village in Bengal, and who then moves to the big city of Kolkata.

As part of my research for the novel, I plan to write at least a dozen stories to help me ‘see’ the locations and the characters. Probably I shan’t include much of the material in the final novel, but it will have served its purpose, and, I hope, entertained a few readers.

The dove on the pergola - Holi 180731

The festival of colours

“Come here, little honey bee.”

Makshirani ran to her mother, Joti, and cuddled her. Joti smiled. For all her twelve years, Makshirani was still childish. Perhaps it was because her little brother, Sahadar, was only just weaned at two years old.

“You know it’s Holika Dahan tomorrow?”

Makshirani looked up at Joti.

“And then Holi the next day!” She grinned. “I am going to make Banerjee Sahib so wet with my water gun! Pink water!”

“Make sure you treat him with respect, little one. He is your teacher; you owe him courtesy.”

“He likes it, Mami. You saw him last year, laughing and joking, and covered from head to toe in purple. He had purple patches on his face for a week!”

Joti hid a smile.

“It was Holika Dahan I wanted to speak to you about. You know the story, don’t you?”

“Yes, Mami. Lord Vishnu killed the demon Holika in the fire, and saved Prahlada. Banerjee Sahib told us we had to pray to Lord Vishnu to kill the evil part of us so that we could be virtuous people.” She said it with a sing-song tone, as though she had learned it by rote.

“You’re a good girl, Makshirani.” Joti kissed her. “Now, will you take this jug down to Shama’s mother, please.”

“I’m not friends with Shama anymore.” Nevertheless, Makshirani held out her hands for the jug. Joti raised her eyebrows.

“She got me in trouble at school, and then she was rude to me.”

“What a shame! You used to be best friends. Carry the jug carefully, now.”

The afternoon sun was warm. Insects buzzed in the bushes beside the path that led to the village. Rice stood high, green and gold, in the paddy field; it was nearly time for the harvest. Makshirani looked forward to that. There was no school during harvest; everybody had to help gather the crop so it wouldn’t spoil. It was hard work, but when the harvest was good everyone was cheerful, and some of the women would bake sweet treats for the workers to enjoy at the end of the day. Makshirani wandered off the path and gazed at the crop. There were plenty of grains on each stem, and they were good and fat. Provided the weather stayed fair the harvest should be bountiful. Prithvi had blessed them this year.

Makshirani suddenly remembered her errand, and went on more briskly. It wasn’t far to the house where Shama lived.

She put down the jug outside the little house, and called out. Shama’s mother came quickly.

“Namaste” said Makshirani, bowing. “Mami sent me to you with this.” She picked up the jug and handed it to the woman.

“Good! We shall have some treats for Holi then! Make sure you come for your share, won’t you Makshirani?”

Behind her, Shama scowled, and drew her finger across her neck.

“Thank you, Didi. I shall be sure to come.”

Makshirani smiled and scampered away.

The following evening the family walked down to the village where the bonfire had been built. It was little Sahadar’s first time at Holika Dahan and he clung tightly to Joti, frightened by the large crowd of people and the dark night. His eyes were wide and gleamed in the starlight.

Somebody began to beat a drum. The sound was muffled, distant. Sahadar’s face puckered. Makshirani stroked his cheek gently.

The drum came closer. Makshirani thought of Lord Vishnu and how he destroyed Holika. She thought of Shama.

‘Perhaps she didn’t mean to make trouble for me,’ she thought. Her heart beat in time with the rhythm of the drum. Sahadar grasped her finger, and she smiled at him.

‘I persuaded the other girls at school not to play with Shama,’ thought Makshirani. ‘That wasn’t good, was it?’

Sahadar pulled her finger into his mouth. Makshirani gasped as he bit it; his teeth were small but sharp.

“Ow!”

The people next to her turned and stared. Makshirani stuck the injured finger in her mouth. Sahadar rubbed his face against Joti’s breast; he was almost asleep.

And then the drummer was among them. People jostled each other to make a path for him as he walked through the throng, accompanied by an effigy of Holika with Prahlada on her lap.

Makshirani looked at Holika and quaked at her ferocious smile. She shrank away, pressing even closer to Joti.

The effigy was placed on the bonfire. There was a flare of light as a torch was lit.

“Lord Vishnu!” murmured Makshirani.

The torch was thrust into the base of the bonfire. The kindling caught immediately, little flames igniting twigs, twigs setting fire to branches, until Holika was surrounded by fire. Makshirani’s face glowed with the heat.

As the effigy caught fire, there was a wailing sound from the effigy, as though it felt the flames. Makshirani jumped and almost ran away.

“Lord Vishnu, burn away my faults. Help me to do dharma.” She spoke out loud without realising.

Suddenly she knew what she had to do.

Pulling away from Joti’s hand, she pushed through the crowd, around the bonfire, until she found Shama and her family.

“I’m sorry I was horrid to you,” she said to Shama.

“I never meant you to get into trouble,” replied Shama.

The two girls looked at each other.

“Can I tell the other girls we’re best friends again?” asked Makshirani.

Shama looked doubtful.

“You made them be rude to me. They laughed at me because I don’t go to school and can’t read.”

“I’m sorry, Shama, truly I am.”

Shama stepped forward, embraced Makshirani and kissed her on the forehead.

“Alright. Best friends! And I’m coming with you tomorrow when you soak Banerjee Sahib!

Makshirani grinned.

“We’ll absolutely drench him!”

Then she thought a minute, placed her hands together, said “Namaste,” and bowed.

“Namaste,” replied Shama, bowing in her turn.

For a few seconds they regarded each other seriously, then, with smiles of delight they ran to tell Joti that they were best friends again.