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 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.
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!
“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.