City Life – Part 2

A few weeks ago in ‘Friday Fictioneers’, I posted “City Life”, a story about a young girl who has grown up in rural India, and comes 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 posted the first part on April 17th – you can read it here if you wish.

Here is Part 2. It’s 3,300 words long, and will probably take about fifteen minutes to read

I hope you enjoy it!

City Life Kolkata Pixabay 180507

City life – long version Part 2

The goat bleated noisily, disturbed by the unusual activity before dawn. Makshirani stirred as her mother, Joti, shook her vigorously.

“I never knew anybody so hard to wake up,” she grumbled.

Makshirani opened her eyes. Today was the day! She rose quickly, splashed water on her face and dressed. She could hardly see her mother in the shadows. She could hear her father, Binoba, moving about outside.

“Here – eat this. You might not have any more before you reach Aunt Abhilasha.”

She handed Makshirani a beaker of milk and a piece of roti bread. Makshirani found it hard to swallow the bread. She was still half asleep, and not hungry at all. But mami was right; she would be travelling all day and needed to eat.

“Thank you, Mami. Is there some left for little brother Sahadar?”

Joti smiled to herself.

“Yes, there’s some for Sahadar. Quickly now – your papa’s waiting for you.”

Makshirani embraced her mother. She wept quietly as the moment of parting came close. When would she see her mami again? Joti hugged her tight, then pushed her away.

“Here’s your case. Go on now, little honey bee. I’m so proud of you!”

Clutching her small case, Makshirani slipped outside.

“Remember. Stay silent until we’re well outside the village,” said Binoba.

It was very dark. There was no moon, but a great scattering of stars sparkled above them. Makshirani stepped lightly on the dusty track. She could hear rustling from the trees at the side of the path as the leaves blew in the wind. She could smell the rice paddies beyond. Soon they had reached the main street of the village. Somewhere a hen clucked gently. Makshirani heard an ox mutter and grumble as it chewed and chewed on its cud. The world was awakening.

By the time they reached the end of the village, the sky in the east was pale. A cockerel crowed triumphantly.

“Hurry, now, these are Pralay’s fields,” said Binoba. Even as he spoke, Makshirani heard the distant racket of a diesel engine starting; only Pralay had a tractor. She walked more quickly until they were past his fields. The road curved round, and they were hidden by the scrubby trees at the roadside.

It was a long walk, several miles to the metalled highway, and then twice as many again. The day was hot, the air heavy. By now, the road was busy with cars, buses belching dark exhaust, and, everywhere, small motorcycles. In the distance Makshirani could see a hill, abrupt and conical in the otherwise gentle landscape.

“Isn’t that where Aunt Abhilasha took us for holiday when she came to visit?” asked Makshirani.

“You have a good memory, girl. That was many years ago. Yes, that is Joychandi Pahar. We walked up to the temple right at the top.”

“I remember the taxi ride,” said Makshirani. “What luxury!”

“It would be nice to be rich, true,” admitted Binoba. “But you enjoy many blessings, girl.”

“I know, and I am grateful for them, Father. I am very grateful that you should walk all this way to make sure that I am safe.”

“And I must walk home, too. I hope there is no storm today.” He looked uneasily at the sky.

“Oh, look at that palace,” exclaimed Makshirani. “Who lives there, Papa?”

“That is the station, my dear. Joychandi Pahar. And we are in time for your train.” He dug into his small pack and drew out an envelope. “Here are the tickets Aunt Abhilasha sent.”

“Do you know which I use?” asked Makshirani.

Her father nodded.

“No. I have travelled by train only twice, and your mother dealt with the tickets. You will have to read them or ask the woman at the counter.” He looked doubtfully at his daughter.

Makshirani looked at the tickets. She was pleased to find that she understood them easily and said a silent prayer of thanks for her mother’s generosity in arranging reading lessons.

The station was filling up. Traffic noise reverberated through the concourse whenever the automatic door slid open. There was the sound of a tractor. Makshirani wondered who would come to a train station by tractor.

Binoba shuffled his feet.

“I must be going,” he said. “I do not wish to be caught out on the highway in a storm.”

“But I don’t know where I catch the train, or…or anything!”

“You see the man over there?” Binoba pointed to a man in the uniform of the West Bengal Railway. “Without doubt he can help you. Ask him.”

A large man next to them cleared his throat.

“Good morning,” he said.

Makshirani jumped. It was the voice she loathed.

“Pralay!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, my dear.”

Makshirani dropped her gaze.

“And where is our little honey bee travelling today?” purred Pralay.

“She’s going to Kolkata. A visit to her Aunt.” Binoba muttered, his manner a curious mixture of defiance and deference.

“And you didn’t think to tell me, her steadfast suitor? I hope she will not be gone long? There is the betrothal to celebrate after all.”

“Well, there is nothing formal yet.”

“Nothing formal, no, but we have an understanding, neighbour, do we not? We agree that this union could bring great benefits to both our families, don’t we?”

Pralay looked from one to the other.

“Perhaps you have had a better offer through her Aunt? Hmm, hmm…yes, I can see that might be tempting. Well, I must wait and see whether my neighbour’s word is his bond. And you…” he jabbed his middle finger viciously towards Binoba, “might wish to reflect on the consequences to a man who breaks his word in so serious a matter.”

He took Makshirani’s tickets and glanced at them.

“Second class. Your Aunt is hardly generous. You will be hot. I, myself, always travel in an air-conditioned compartment. Now, come with me. I will show you where to wait. When the train arrives, climb aboard as quickly as you can, otherwise you’ll be standing all the way.”

Binoba fidgeted. Pralay made a gesture of dismissal.

“You can go. I will take good care of our Makshirani, and she will produce the sweetest honey for me.”

Makshirani shuddered.

But Pralay was as good as his word. He told Makshirani how many stations she had to count before changing at Asansol, and then how many stops the express would make before her journey’s end.

“Now remember,” he said, “The city of Kolkata has several train stations. The station where you will arrive is not called Kolkata, it is called Sealdah.”

He pulled out his mobile phone with a flourish. “The only one in the village,” he said, with obvious satisfaction. He smiled at Makshirani. “When you are my wife, I will buy you an iPhone.”

“You are very generous,” she murmured.

“10:53” proclaimed Pralay, looking at his phone rather than the station clock. “Your train will be here very soon. Let us go out onto the platform.”

Makshirani followed meekly.

The train rumbled slowly into the station, squeaking and groaning as it slowly halted.

The instant it was stationary, Pralay was by the door holding it open.

“In! In! Quickly!”

Makshirani was just in time to squeeze onto a bench seat. True, there were five of them perched on a bench for three; true, the plump lady on Makshirani’s left had no compunction about pushing her when she wanted more space, and the skinny old farmer on her right was all elbows and knees; but she had a seat, and as the express rolled noisily from station to station and more and more people climbed aboard, Makshirani was grateful for the crumbs of comfort it afforded.

She had never seen so many people. The corridor between the seats was crammed with standing passengers. Many packed themselves into the spaces by the doors, where the windows were wide open and the breeze from the train’s motion provided a little coolness to ameliorate the stifling heat. Makshirani’s head swam.

And the noise! The bench opposite was occupied by a family. The mother had a harsh voice, and to judge by her remonstrances her children were the naughtiest in the world. The smallest child, about three years old, glanced shyly at Makshirani, who smiled encouragingly at him. The little boy reached across and stroked the fabric of Makshirani’s sari.

“Pretty lady,” he said.

His mother pulled him away roughly. What must Makshirani think of them, how could he be so rude, what would his papa say when she told him? The little boy’s face puckered, and he added his wails to the cacophony.

“I don’t mind, honestly,” said Makshirani. “My name is Makshirani. What are your children’s names? You must be very proud of them all!”

“I am Mishti,” she replied and introduced her children, then sighed. “What a handful they are! If my mother hadn’t summoned us to Kolkata I would never have brought them on the train. But they are beautiful, aren’t they?”

“They are lovely. You are going to Kolkata? Have you been before?”

“Oh, yes. I was born there, but my father grew up near Joychandi Pahar and I was married to a man whose family lives there. Such is life. Not that I’m complaining.”

“Perhaps I could hold your little boy, your little Jayaketan?”

Of course, now that he was allowed to go to the pretty lady, Jayaketan only wanted his mother. She smiled and cuddled him. He put his thumb in his mouth, and his eyelids drooped.

“You are also going to Kolkata?” asked Mishti.

“Yes. I am going to stay with my aunt.”

“Would you like to sit with us on the express to Kolkata?”

Makshirani beamed.

“That would be most kind. Now I won’t get lost and miss my train.”

The express was less crowded, and Mishti encouraged her children to lie quietly.

Makshirani settled back in her seat. She hoped city life wasn’t like this, cramped, crowded, and stiflingly hot. Despite the novelty of the journey her eyelids closed and she slept.

She dreamed.

She and her best friend Shama were standing by the well in the village. She was trying to read a letter, but it was written in English and was too difficult for her to understand. She could see from the signature that it was from Shama’s brother, Abhoy, but that was all. She could feel Shama’s desperation to know what it said.

She made out a word here, and a word there, and suddenly Abhoy himself was with them reading from his letter. He looked taller than she remembered, and even more handsome. His smile delighted her. He reached out and took her hand, and she shivered with the exquisite pleasure.

‘And so I have come back from Kolkata to claim my bride,’ he read.

But there was a noise, a loud noise, the noise of a tractor.

The three friends turned to see Pralay driving full tilt towards Abhoy.

“No!” screamed Makshirani but it was too late…

She jolted awake.

It was even hotter. The carriage was quiet; the heat left people no energy for talking. Mishti fanned herself constantly. Her children were asleep, piled in a heap like a litter of puppies.

White clouds were forming, racing skywards, boiling outwards, darkening, darkening. The light was fading fast. A few heavy raindrops fell and then it was dry again. Makshirani listened to the noise of the carriage on the railway track. Rackety-clack, rackety-clack. Suddenly the daylight faded almost completely and the rain started in earnest.

It came down in torrents. Swirling winds drove it in through the open windows of the carriage, drenching those close to them. A small group of young men took off their tee shirts and luxuriated in the cool water showering them. They hooted and cackled, showing off. Makshirani shrank back in her seat as far as she could.

The rain poured like a waterfall off the roof of the train. Makshirani could see nothing outside except for the flashes of lightning. The noise of the train was drowned by the battering of the rain and the explosions of thunder. Despite the noise, in the dimness and feeling the relief of the cooler air, Makshirani dozed again.

It was the pushing that woke her. She found herself snuggled up to the woman next to her, her head on the woman’s ample shoulder.

“Wake up, girl. What are you doing? You’re not a child to rest yourself against a stranger.”

Yawning, Makshirani apologised.

“Besides, we are nearly at my stop. I need to get ready.” The woman gathered up her things, shoving them into a jute bag. As soon as she moved away from her seat, Makshirani slid across and sat next to the window. She stretched her cramped muscles; the relief was delightful.

As the train jolted away, she tried to catch sight of a sign that would tell her which station it was, but the crowds jostling on the platform were too thick. She looked at the woman opposite who was cuddling Jayaketan, trying to persuade him to go back to sleep. Perhaps she could ask her which station it was? No, it would disturb the little boy.

Rackety-clack, rackety-clack.

The sound was louder, and Makshirani glanced out of the window. The train was on a bridge over a wide, muddy brown-grey river. As she gazed at the structure, eyes wide with astonishment, a young man came over to her.

“It’s the new Jubilee Bridge, the Sampreeti Setu,” he said. “It’s a magnificent construction, isn’t it?”

Mishti glared at the youth.

“Leave her alone. Her family will be meeting her at Sealdah; they won’t want you in tow.”

She confronted him ferociously. He gestured with his head.

“If you say so.”

He walked away.

“You must take care in the city,” said Mishti. “There are men who will attack women, especially at night. It is not safe to go unescorted after about seven o’clock.”

“But he seemed a nice young man. He was telling me about the bridge.”

“Ah! You never can tell with men. Some of them are devils.” She patted Makshirani’s arm. “You are a lovely girl. It would be a tragedy if you were hurt.” Her face was thoughtful, pained. “Still we are nearly there now. I must pack my stuff and wake up my tribe of children!”

Rackety-clack, rackety-clack.

Suddenly Makshirani opened her eyes wide. “There are people on the tracks!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, of course. They are poor. They have nowhere else to live.”

Mishti looked at Makshirani with concern.

“Here,” she said, “if you have any trouble you can come and find me. I will write down my address.” She pulled out a scruffy fragment of paper, and a much-chewed pencil and wrote slowly and painstakingly in English.

Makshirani looked at the paper, and back to Mishti.

“Thank you,” she said

“Take care of yourself,” said Mishti, “we’re pulling into Sealdah now. Farewell!”

Makshirani hung back as the crowds jostled to be quickly off the train. She didn’t want to miss seeing cousin Dayasara in the crush. She walked slowly along the platform, looking out carefully all the way. No sign of him. She hoped she hadn’t missed him; she was near the end of the platform.

She stopped, looked all around. What would he look like now? She hadn’t seen him for nearly nine years. ‘He must be very different,’ she mused.

There was a sound of running footsteps, and shouting voices, and a young man sprinted across the concourse towards her. He held up a piece of white card with her name on it. There was a huge grin on his face.

Makshirani peered at him. His complexion was dark, and he sported a short, neatly trimmed black beard. But under the beard – yes, it was the same Dayasara; she’d forgotten that mischievous smile, but it came to mind immediately she saw him. He was altogether a nice looking young man, she decided.

“Cousin Makshirani,” he said. “Namaste! Aunt Abhilasha has sent me to collect you.”

Makshirani placed her hands together before her and bowed. “Namaste, Cousin Dayasara.”

“Come, I have a motorbike. Have you ever been on one?”

Makshirani nodded.

“No, never. What do I have to do?”

Dayasara laughed.

“Nothing at all. Just sit still and I will do it all.”

He took her case. “Why, how light it is!” He strapped it onto the pannier of a small motorbike.

“Sit behind me and hold tight. Oh, and pull your sari up to your knees so it doesn’t touch the exhaust pipe and scorch!”

He kicked the starter. The engine fired and died. He kicked again, and with a gust of blue smoke and several loud reports like gunfire, the engine started. It was noisy. The whole bike shook as though with a fever.

“Dayasara, I want to get off,” gasped Makshirani in a panic. “I don’t want to be blown up!”

“Ah, it’s fine, you’ll be fine. Hold on!” And they were off.

The little bike buzzed and banged its way slowly across the car park, gradually accelerating and becoming smoother as the engine warmed up.

“You see?” yelled Dayasara. “It’s better already! By the time we get home it’ll be purring like a sewing machine.” He swung out into the main traffic stream. Makshirani shrieked.

Dayasara zigzagged along the road past cyclists and one or two very slow lorries. Gradually they gained on a bus.

“Whee, let’s go!” Dayasara gunned the throttle and started to overtake. The bus driver shrugged, cynically. The little bike crept up beside the bus. Now it had reached the rear wheel. Now the middle of the vehicle. A large articulated lorry approached from the opposite direction. Dayasara twisted the throttle to its maximum and they gained another one mile per hour.

Makshirani closed her eyes. “I shall die here,” she thought, “and I haven’t been in the city an hour yet.” Tears of fright trickled down her cheeks. She heard the lorry’s klaxon, very near, and then the bike swerved left. The bus driver sounded his horn behind her, and she almost jumped off with surprise. The bike’s engine whined like a hornet.

Dayasara went left, off the main highway, then right, then left again. Each time the road became narrower. Shops, hardly more than stalls really, encroached into the carriageway, and people wandered across heedless of the traffic. There were flies everywhere, and the streets stank of rotting vegetables.

Makshirani clung on. She felt as though she was vibrating in every part. Her legs felt as if they were roasting, and she suddenly remembered the exhaust pipe, and tried to edge her ankles a little further away from it.

Dayasar turned left one last time, into a tree-lined street of old buildings from the colonial period, drove about a hundred yards down it and pulled up in the small front garden.

“Here we are!” he announced grandly. “Home! I’ll take you in to mother.”

Makshirani climbed off the bike. Her legs felt wobbly.

“Thank you for the lovely ride, Dayasara. It was…it was…” She couldn’t think of an appropriate ending for her sentence, so she just smiled which seemed to satisfy Dayasara.

“Perhaps you would let me show you some of Kolkata when you’ve spoken to mother?”

Makshirani looked down modestly. Dayasara was a nice boy, but Aunt Abhilasha might well have other plans for her – and, indeed, for him. Her whole future was now in her Aunt’s hands, and her only priority now must be to please her.

“Only if Aunt says we may,” she murmured.

Dayasara made a gesture of approval.

“You are wise. I will take you up to her room now.”

Makshirani took a deep breath and followed him into the house.

 

 

 

 

A long shadow

We are all shaped by joy and sadness. We all experience tragedy at some point in our life. Sometimes events echo down generations. Sometimes healing takes many years to accomplish. How we deal with tragedy makes a difference to its effect on us. If we can accept it, we can find healing. It’s a different matter if we rail against it, and curse…

A long shadow Khao Lak 170815

A long shadow

The ocean at Khao Lak was pellucid aquamarine, and it glittered with a million shards of reflected light. Throughout the rehearsal for his son’s betrothal, Narong seemed uneasy, glancing repeatedly at the water, swallowing, clenching his fists. Rehearsal over, the other participants drifted away, laughing and chattering; Narong began to weep.

Seeing a grown man cry was horrible. Narong had always shown iron self-control and yet suddenly he was broken. He no longer seemed to care what other people would think of him. The tears flooded, the nose streamed, the mouth drooled, the body heaved in great sobs. It was disgusting. No son should ever feel disgusted by his father.

“Dad! Wipe your face. Duangkamol will see you. She’ll think you’re mad!”

I urged my father across the hotel lobby towards the lift. Please let it come soon, and be empty!

In the lift, I handed my father my handkerchief.

“Here, clean yourself up. This is my betrothal, for goodness sake.”

I kept my finger on the button to keep the doors closed until he was presentable, then I pushed him onwards until he was safely out of sight in our suite.

“Now, pull yourself together. You must be over this by eight o’clock, ready for the banquet.” He nodded, then his eyes filled again and he curled into a ball on the bed, sobbing as though his heart was broken.

I headed for the bar. I needed a whisky.

“Somchair!”

I turned.

“Aunt Lamai! It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you, too!” She gave me a beaming smile, and held out her arms for a hug. I embraced her heartily, engulfed by the brightly patterned silk of her clothing.

“I’m sorry, I need a drink, Auntie. Would you like to join me? I’m going to the bar.”

After a glance at me, she said, “I would love a glass of iced tea, Somchair. Is the bar the best place for that? I’m not used to luxury like this hotel.”

“I don’t know about the best place, Auntie, but they’ll certainly serve it, and I’m afraid I need something stronger.”

I made her comfortable in a corner, and ordered the iced tea and a double scotch.

“Nerves?”

I shook my head.

“Well you don’t have to tell me, of course.”

Aunt Lamai looked disappointed. I loved my aunt. After my mum died, she’d given me the same love she’d given her own children. I felt like her child.

“It’s Dad. We’d just finished a rehearsal for tomorrow’s ceremony when he broke down. I mean, totally broke down. I had to rush him back to the suite.”

Aunt Lamai thought for a moment. “Could you see the sea?” she asked.

I was surprised by her question.

“Yes, we could. Why do you ask?”

“Well, this is where it happened, isn’t it, Somchair? Have you forgotten the wave?”

It had all been so quick. One moment I had been happily playing at the water’s edge, the next Dad had seized me, picked me up. He was yelling, “Achara! Run! Run!”

I remembered my mother’s face, stiff with shock, staring out to sea. With a last despairing shout of “Run, Achara!” my father had started to race shorewards.

The wave struck.

My memory thereafter is of a wild, brown confusion, of being now under the water, now on my father’s chest as he held me above him; of pain, as the water scrubbed me against obstacles; and, finally, of darkness that ended with agonising retching as I coughed brine and mud out of my lungs and came back into the light.

And then the blankness of learning that Achara, my beloved mama, was dead.

“Why do you think your Dad never remarried, Somchair?” asked Lamai, softly.

“I should never have come here again. I should have guessed.”

Lamai shook her head.

“No. You were right to come. These are your roots, yours and Duangkamol’s too. You were born here, and you were reborn here when your father saved you.”

“What do I do, Lamai? How can I help him? What a burden he must have carried!”

“I always wished he’d married again. Achara and I were very close. After she had died, I could feel her longing for him to find someone else. But Narong is a strong man. He once said to me, ‘I saved my dear son, but I should have been able to save them both. I left her to die.’”

Lamai sighed.

“Go and talk to him, Somchair. No, go and listen to him. Make him tell you what it has been like. Help him to feel he hasn’t failed. Help him to lay her to rest.”

She patted my hand. “I must join my family. Thank you for the drink.”

Her smile was as soft as goosedown, her eyes filled with a wistful hope.

My father rarely drank, but when he did it was cognac that he chose. I bought a large one, and went up to our suite. Narong was lying on the bed, rigid, eyes staring at the ceiling.

“Dad. Dad!”

Slowly he turned his face to me.

“I’ve brought you a cognac. Would you like to sit up?”

I thought he wasn’t going to answer. He looked at me, wooden-faced. At last he cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You are a good son, and I shamed you.”

“Here, let me help you up.”

He glared at me and sat up, then rose to his feet and moved towards the balcony. I followed, shaking with agitation. My father opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the sea. He walked to the rail. I stood beside him. Together we gazed at the ilne where sky and water met. I saw beauty; but what nightmares was my father confronting?

“I couldn’t save you both,” he said at last. “I don’t really know if I saved you. It was sheer dumb luck that we weren’t washed against concrete, or…” He stopped, swallowed. “Or a tree. I never told you. That was how your mother…” he paused again, “how Achara, my beloved Achara, died. She had escaped drowning, only to be broken against a tree.”

There was a depth of sorrow in his eyes that I had never noticed before; I had seen only the fierceness of the thin, straight mouth in his domineering face; and yet, now that I had perceived the sorrow, I knew it had always been there.

I put my arm around him. He stiffened, but then relaxed.

“I cursed that tree, Somchair. I cursed the sea. I cursed this town. They took my beloved from me, and I hated them all. But here they are; and I have been the one living under a curse.

Achara is at peace now, Somchair. I am at peace. Will you come with me to her grave? We will take flowers, lotus, her favourite.”

For a few minutes longer we gazed into the infinite. I poured out the cognac as an offering; to whom I could not say, but it seemed right; and my father and I left arm in arm to find flowers.

 

Thai names, and their meanings

Lamai – a woman of soft skin, a caring person

Narong – one who creates war, or is always ready for war

Somchair – one who is macho or manly

Duangkamol – right from the heart

Achara – an angel, who is very pretty or beautiful

Khao Lak – a small town devastated by the tsunami in 2004. Somchair is 21, nearly 22, so he was 9 at the time.