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.

 

 

The Dove on the Pergola – 18th June 2018

The Dove on the Pergola – progress 180618

This is my weekly 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.

The dove on the pergola 180618

Character and plot

I’ve been working on the storyboard this week.

One of the things I’ve learned from writing my previous novels is that it’s difficult to introduce substantive material at a late stage. The new material can create conflicts with previous material and putting them right causes further problems and – oh! (Throws up hands in despair!)

So, I want to complete the storyboard comprehensively before I start to write the novel itself. I have 900 words on the storyboard, and that takes me about a third of the way through the novel.

Mind you, I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression. Side by side with the storyboard I’m recording my insights into the characters and the way they interact to form the plot. There’s many more words here – about 3,000 so far. It’s leading to some interesting progress. Most notably, I’m finding that characters are starting to show that they have multiple roles to play.

For example, when Makshirani flees from her village to Kolkata, she turns to her Aunt Abhilasha for support and accommodation. It’s obvious that Abhilasha will influence the plot after Makshirani joins her – but how about earlier than that? Why does she live in Kolkata? Suppose she plays a crucial role at Makshirani’s birth? Her experiences then would help shape who she is, and therefore affect Makshirani later. And that’s one of the reasons why late additions of substantive content are so difficult; action and character are totally interlinked.

Despite my good intentions, though, I must confess that I have started writing the opening scene! I’m trying to achieve the intensity and focus of flash fiction in an extended piece of several thousand words. At the end of the opening chapter, I want the reader to feel emotionally exhausted – but eager to carry on reading!

If you have any thoughts on the way I’m tackling this, I would be delighted to hear from you. I will answer every comment.

 

The Dove on the Pergola – 11th June 2018

The Dove on the Pergola – Progress 180611

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

The Dove on the Pergola 180611

If a reader is to keep turning the pages of a novel, it helps if the novel has a strong sense of direction. Some writers achieve this by planning. Others construct lively characters, put them into an intriguing situation and discover what happens as they write.

Stephen King, in his book “On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft” advocates ‘excavating’ the story. This seems to mean having an outline and then just writing, allowing the characters and plot to emerge naturally. He gives the outline of a horror story in his book, and suggests it can be used as a writing exercise.

I tried it, and it definitely freed up my story. I wrote things that I would not otherwise have imagined – I had to really, as it was a horror story, and I don’t ‘do’ horror. Just in case you’re interested, you can find the story – ‘Maureen’ – here.

‘The Dove on the Pergola’ has several storylines.

There is the story of how Makshirani gradually starts to understand the nature of love that leads to a happy marriage. This includes romantic adventures – and, of course, misadventures – that bring her to the point of betrothal. Will she? Won’t she? Not telling you! Maybe I don’t even know myself yet!

Another storyline involves Makshirani’s growing sense of personal autonomy. The subservience of women that was the rule in her village is fast disappearing in Kolkata, where she lives during the period of the novel. Fast disappearing, but not yet eliminated. Makshirani will want to be sure that she won’t become a prisoner of her husband’s family. Will this cause her to walk away from the man she loves passionately?

And then there is the story of Makshirani’s family, left behind in the village. Her departure had consequences and evoked the enmity of the richest man in the village. She sends money home, which makes enough difference to prevent the family from becoming destitute. As she makes progress, she is able to send more home, indeed, her money can support the family. But how do they feel about this? Her father has lived all his life in a culture where it is the man, the husband, the father, who provides. Is he now useless, redundant? How does his wife, Makshirani’s mother feel about the impact on her husband?

There are other storylines, too, and an unexpected revelation about identity, but these are the main ones. And I want to bring them all to the boil simultaneously for the climax of the novel.

So, this is where I’m starting the serious work on this novel; with the climax. I’m planning to use Stephen King’s technique of excavating the story, and in the process I expect to learn much more about the characters. I wonder whether Makshirani will marry? I’m really looking forward to finding out!

Hands up anybody who thinks this is over-ambitious? Okay, well that’s what the comments box is for! Write and let me know what you think!

The dove on the pergola – an invitation

The girl who went to Kolkata 180417

“The dove on the pergola” – an invitation

In Kolkata, extreme wealth and abject poverty co-exist side by side. Modern thinking conflicts with traditional beliefs, and yet people remain subtly influenced by the old ways. There are people with devout religious faith rubbing shoulders with those who acknowledge no god.

In rural Bengal, by contrast, traditional values still hold sway, and family interests come before almost everything.

What would it be like, I wonder, for a young Indian woman who has grown up in a village in Bengal, to move to the big city of Kolkata?

And that is the starting point for the novel I have just started to write – “The dove on the pergola”.

Makshirani, the heroine of the novel, has to find a way to build her life in Kolkata. How will her traditional upbringing influence her choices? Will her beliefs and background give her sufficient flexibility to survive and prosper in the city?

The starkness of these questions and the consequences of failure seem to me to be much greater in India than in the Western world. That’s exciting, and it’s why I’m writing this novel.

So here’s an invitation.

Once a week, every Monday, I shall post about the progress I’m making. For obvious reasons I shall not divulge much of the plot, rather I shall be writing about the process of constructing the novel. If you’re interested in that, please follow me. And if you want to ask questions about what I have posted via the comments section, I shall do my best to provide satisfactory answers. Constructive criticism is welcomed with open arms!

Just a footnote about the writing I’ve done previously. I have written two novels, neither of which has been published. I have written well over 100 short stories, (mostly flash fiction of 100 or 150 words) that have all appeared on this blog. If you’re interested, you can find them in the archives.

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.

 

 

 

 

City Life – long version

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.

The girl who went to Kolkata 180417

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.”

Shama beamed.

“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,

Abhoy”

“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?”

“Oh, yes.”

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.”

“Respectable!”

“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.

Makshirani blushed.

“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!”