A small yellow river flows though the flat landscape. I stand on the riverbank, watching the seemingly unending flow of the fluid. I look ahead onto the other side of the stream; as far as I can see it’s a desolate place – just red-orange mud everywhere, orange-red mud which bears patches having a bit more than a tinge of yellow; scattered shrubs and a few trees (which I can almost count with my fingers) providing the necessary elements to exempt it from being considered a barren wasteland. This singular sight extends as far as my eyes permit me to see.
But wait, maybe I have spoken in haste. There are trees out there in the horizon; nay an entire forest! Ah the horizon! Why is it always the horizon that people look to? Why is it that the horizon always feels more beautiful than your immediate vicinity? Is it is because the horizon is always out of our reach? Because by its very definition it runs away from us try to get closer to it? But wait again…the stuff that horizons are made of – aren’t they still there? Suppose I cross the river and start walking in that direction towards the forest; won’t the trees still be waiting for me? Yes they will! So what was all that about horizons? What ludicrous blabber? And so knowingly I start another one of my inaudible monologues…until it is cut short. Someone speaks behind me.
‘How much money do you have now didi? I want to go home! I don’t like it here.’ a high pitched voice says, undoubtedly some kid.
I look back, expecting to see a small girl and her elder sibling. To my surprise, it turns out to be a small boy. But of course it is a kid; I can’t help but forgive myself for this error – after all girls and boys generally sound the same when they are kids.
I look down at the two figures. The boy is three and a half feet tall. He wears a black vest, discoloured and muddied to the point where it looks pale dark-blue. He has black shorts on; they look relatively newer but I am not sure whether my judgement is correct or it is his astonishingly shabby vest which forces me to think like that.
The girl seems to be around twelve. She is much taller; the boy barely reaches her breasts which protrude as small lumps against her frock. The frock is yellowish, but I am sure it was white once upon a time. It is muddied too but this still comes nowhere close to the boy’s clothes. Her frock bears some red floral design on the borders and on its seams.
And now, something catches my eye – I look behind the two children and there it is – in a place which I assumed to be far from civilization, there it is – hundreds of dilapidated tenements sprawling all over the place and behind these tall structures that look like chimneys; black smoke rising from two of them – brick kilns! And now the girl speaks in a voice which I am sure I would have mistaken for a grown woman’s, had I not seen her already.
‘Not much bhai. Not enough for starting a life in Kolkata at any cost. Tumpa’s mom says it takes a lot of money to go there, 25 rupees by train! I only have 50. And then things are more costly there. I have to work some months more man; and then let’s see what happens.’
The coarse texture of her voice, the loudness in her words, her thin outline, their dirty clothes…they work at the brick kiln no doubt…but there is something confusing here that I cannot fully understand. Wait, they are looking directly ahead at me! But my presence doesn’t seem to trouble them in the least. Well, why would the presence of a twenty year old man trouble them anyway? Hmm, maybe indifference is the more suitable word here – they seem not to take any notice of me. In most other situations I guess I would find that pleasing. But there is something about them which makes me want to get their attention. No, I do not know them; but with my ridiculously sensitive ears I can hear courage and bravery in their voice; and more realistically I can feel fear – fear of the future.
But before I try to analyse anything more, I now see them walking – they are walking towards me. I keep standing stubbornly where I am but they don’t seem to try to walk around me. Wait…what is this?! The slum children just walked through me! How is this even possible?! I try to call out to them, but can’t, I try to shout, to yell; but nothing comes out of my throat – I am literally speechless! Ah, what is all this sorcery? Where am I??
‘And besides,’ the girl continues as if answering my question, ‘I know cities are not as beautiful as Laalmati here. It is cool and beautiful here isn’t it? Just look at the river!’
Laalmati, literally meaning red mud, falls within Vikrampur subdivision but is really ten kilometres away from the edge of the city. It’s a desolate place, known for (and named after) its reddish, clayey mud which, though unfit for crops, is perfect for pottery and bricks. Owing to this, there are a lot of brick kilns here. I have only been here once as a kid though I do not recall the reason.
I look on as the two siblings approach the river. I try one more time to call out to them but in vain; for some reason I am rendered dumb. I get the hint, ‘It’s the time to remain passive in the course of things Abdul. Just watch, listen and let take fate take its course’.
And I watch…the two children stand by the bank for more than a moment. They stay silent for some time and then the boy takes a few steps back, follows it up with a short run-up and jumps into the river. The girl giggles…the boy laughs. This is real joy; I can hear it in their laughter, feel it in the air when they chuckle. And now the girl calmly gets into the water too, though her entry isn’t anywhere near as dramatic as her brother’s.
For sometime, I watch the kids as they splashed, giggled and swore at each other. Sometime, but how long? What is the time? And to go ahead and add to that, what is the date?
‘What is the date didi?’ the boy asks my question, splashing some water onto his sister.
‘Why, you kutta (dog)!’ she laughs but goes on without waiting for a reply, ‘It’s the 15th today. 15th of May! Ha-ha…wait you kutta!’ and she sends a splash of water back at the boy who has just done the same to her again. She starts swimming after the boy, who is now on the run, or more correctly on the swim.
But the date sends a chill down my spine, a sense of déjà vu, and I am rendered immovable now. 15th of May…I know the date, I know it well. I have been lost in my thoughts (nay possessed) about this day before. Though I haven’t heard it from them and do not have any evidence to prove it either, I know it is 2002. It’s that tragic day in the life of the Goddess…
And here it comes; I should have expected it – a bag, a satchel. A black satchel floats passively in the water, almost on the edge of the river, near the other bank. And along with the calm water it translates ahead towards us from the right. No, it doesn’t swirl for the river is calm and doesn’t have eddies in it. It solemnly flows towards us, propelled by the water.
The twelve year old sees it first. ‘Bhai look!’ she yells out. The boy halts his getaway from the chasing sister, looks back at her and his sight follows her extended index finger to the satchel.
‘Wait, let me get it’ he says and starts swimming towards the other back. He gets there with quite sometime in hand and awaits the arrival of the black bag. ‘What do you think is in it didi?’ he asks.
‘I have no idea.’ replies the girl in the frock ‘But bring it over here!’
Inevitably the satchel arrives. The boy takes it, but he swims over to the other side. ‘Hey! Bring it here you dog!’ she yells. ‘Wait!’ he shouts, opening the bag himself ‘First promise you won’t hit me!’
‘Okay! Okay!’ she shouts at him.
But he has already opened the satchel now and, as it seems from here, is exploring its contents. ‘Didi! There is another small bag in it! Looks like purse!’ the kid shouts. He takes a few steps back; and another run-up now, and he throws the satchel with all his strength. It flies through the air, its straps floating behind like a set of wings. Poor kid, it doesn’t reach the other side, but nonetheless it falls pretty close to where his sister is in the water. Not a bad throw by any means, considering his size.
‘Come over!’ yells the sister. The boy obliges and quickly swims back.
They are both on the red ground at some height above the coarse river ghat. But I am still immobile and from where I am standing, I can only see their backs as they both squat around the bag. Relying on my immaculate sense of hearing, I try to make out what is going on.
I hear the sound of a zipper opening…and then, the crisp rustling of some plastic packaging and the boy exclaims: ‘Biscuits didi!’ Another zipper opens now, but this one is much shorter than the first one – I can hear it in the high pitch of the squeak it makes. And now, metallic tinkle of coins; coins…these must be coins. Ah, I KNOW it is coins! And now the adolescent girl speaks: ‘Wait, what is this…Oh my! Look Salman – money! Aare there must me at least 200 Rupees here apart form the coins man!’
I await the boy’s reply, Salman…I know his name now. Intriguing how the mere knowledge can make people feel more connected with a person. Well, at least I can feel this is the case with me right now. Salman – two syllables, six letters. What’s in a name? Well, I do not know the answer but certainly it has transformed the boy from being just another face in the suffocating crowd of anonymity into the unambiguous possessor of a name.
Anyways, I await Salman’s reply, expecting to see some expression of unadulterated childish joy in this lucky discovery of biscuits and money. But wait, where is Salman? Where is his sister? Where is the river, the orange-red coloured ground of Laalmati and the tall brick kilns and the slums comprising their undergrowth? Suddenly these images, these shapes fade away, distorting into something which closely resembles the smoke from the kilns. And then these ghostly fumes fade into nothingness.
But no, once again I have spoken too soon. For now the fumes re-emerge something is materialising out of the momentary nothingness surrounding me. Shapes, colours, silhouettes, heat – these elements take form! And slowly, as if toying with my patience, the fumes rearrange themselves… and they give rise to a city. I have started to comprehend as the surroundings still take form, perfecting the last bits of their creation.
A small bridge across a river in Vikrampur. The river is the same one that passes through Laalmati a little further down its course – Konika Nodi, that’s the name by which it is known to the people, Konika River. A man walks on the bridge along the almost invisible sidewalk, covered in dull yellow dust and sprinkled with paper, candy wrappers and polythene bags. He wears long grey trousers, old, dull and dirty. He has a red gamcha – a red towel, loosely coiled around his neck. I have been here before; more specifically, I have been here on this day before. It is around 1 pm. And it is dusty and hot…very hot.
The man is Shubhankar Das, Devi’s father; a daily wage labourer. He is back on his way to work at the construction site of the new town hall after having his lunch at the local dhaba. A black satchel hangs from his right shoulder.
‘Ha-ha, just ask anyone! We make the best puri’s in Vikrampur young man.’ the owner of the dhaba had said today to a new customer – a teenager who was saying he does not like the look of the puri’s.
‘The man is right kaka (literally uncle).’ Shubhankar said chuckling, ‘Their puri’s are first class! I never go anywhere else for my lunch.’ And then he produced from his trousers a small torn brown bag, and from it an equally dilapidated 5 rupee note.
‘Well said Shubhankar.’ said the owner, taking the money, ‘So you are going home today right?’ The owner was seated on a wooden chair, smoking pleasantly. He wore a white vest and a checkered blue-green Lungi. He looked around fifty, about 15 years more than Shubhankars real age.
‘Yes dada.’ Shubhankar said with a smile, ‘I have managed to save around 300. Going home after over a month here in the city. Oh and that reminds me, give me two packets of those biscuits I bought the last time. Devi loved those.’
‘Eei Hori! Give him two packets of those biscuits, those green ones.’ the owner called out to one of his assistants. Starting out as a dhaba, their shop had steadily grown in popularity over the years, thanks to their delicious puri-torkari (bread and curry) and they now sold candies, biscuits, soft drinks and other snacks. The owner hands Shubhankar two green packets – ‘Parley 50-50’ it reads on them. Shubhankar took his black satchel from the table between him and the owner and put the biscuits in it. He then took out his purse again, handed over a 10 rupee note and put the purse in the satchel.
‘Bye! We will meet when I return.’ Shubhankar said with a smile.
‘Of course.’ assured the owner, dragging in another mouthful of cigarette smoke and exhaling it with pleasure…
But now here on the bridge, Shubhankar is walking back to work along the sidewalk. And I know what is going to happen, but cannot bring myself to look away. An young girl stands in his way. With her thin limbs, brown hair and a bulged tummy she stands and stares into Shubhankar’s eyes. Her stretched thin hand sticks out of her torso like those of a snowman. There is a fire in her eyes, fuelled by determination and perhaps Shubhankar sees it too. ‘Give me money now!’ her eyes scream at him. Yet these ostensibly violent elements in the starving girl is contrasted by her dilapidated clothes which seem to be holding together for dear life; by her face which bears the familiar innocence of childhood and by none less than what she does herself – miming desperately to tell him that she wants food, making no secret of her vulnerability. And so she mimes, her stretched out right hand transforms into a fist of rice, the tips of the finger touching each other; and she puts the rice in her mouth…only the rice is not there. And so she mimes, her hand then reaching to her neck, her gestures saying to him that she can’t speak, that she is dumb.
And it happens again – Shubhankar stops, moved (possessed?) by the urchin. In her she sees image of her girl, the Goddess. He stops and now everything happens quickly. Shubhankar saying ‘Wait, my girl’ and reaching into his satchel for money, and she calming down, the muted mimicry of her own situation stopping as she waits for whatever her to-be benefactor would provide; the fire in her gaze somewhat extinguished by his friendly and reassuring voice. And so Shubhankar stopped…a fatal choice.
The sound of a fast approaching overloaded truck, and instinctively he looks behind him, but it is too late. The sound of brakes screeching; but not enough space now and it hits him and drags him on for 30 feet before coming to a halt. His satchel is thrown onto the river over the low railings as the truck hits him. A violent but silent death; no exclamation of horror or pain is heard from Shubhankar; just a soft thud, almost polite, a screech of brakes and then the confused silence of death. Ah no, that’s not true. For milliseconds before the impact, was not that a scream I heard by the bhikari meye (beggar girl) as she jumped out of the way? And here is she now; crying, sobbing audibly as she gets up, her stick limbs shaking like twigs in a windy day. She wasn’t dumb after all…or maybe more melodramatically she regained her voice through the tragic death of her never-to-be benefactor. And now slowly the confusion gives way to the cacophony of rage – people running and shouting, cars coming to a halt, pedestrians rushing to the truck, people shouting ‘Someone call an ambulance!’ and ‘Does anyone have a mobile?’ and ‘Get that driver! He is running away! Hey stop you motherfucker!’ And the truck driver getting down and making a run for his life, shouting ‘It wasn’t my fault! I lost control trying to avoid a bike! Please understand!’ By the end of that day, he would be in the Vikrampur hospital with a fractured hand and skull. Shubhankar’s mutilated body lay stuck under the front right of the truck, a red trail of blood leading to it from the spot where he was hit. And among all these the girl, the one who mimed; she slipped away from all the cacophony, in search of food from someone else. But all these details are nothing new to me; I have been here, seen it all before.
And yet again, now these images, the anonymous faces of people, the immobile truck with the body of the Goddess’s father beneath it, the markets, dust, concrete buildings, the summer heat, the smell…all these again dematerialise into fumes and diffuse away.
Wait, what is this I hear? In this pandemonium resulting from a fatal car crash, what is that noise blaring across the hot and blue May sky? Slowly it is getting louder and I realise it is not a dissonance – far from it. A way more structured and disciplined sound – Music! And I recognise it, the tintinnabulation of a small bell, the rhythmic drumming of a bongo and the very soft sound of a violin – or maybe more likely and instrument that sounds like a violin – I hear this familiar tone, the ringtone of my mobile! Reality calls me through music. And I realise I am dreaming; have been dreaming.
I open my eyes, there is the phone ringing. But it is too cold and I am very tired. And I am feverish – I can feel it in the pain at the joints, the sore throat, the running nose – rendered useless for breathing, and the involuntary shaking of my body…and it feels cold, ice cold. Yes, the weather is indeed cold but surely not enough to warrant this response from me. The sun had just set; the last remnants of twilight dimly light the blue walls of my room, giving them a ridiculous tinge of orange (is that really orange?). Still under the warm comfort of the blankets, I take a look at the clock, straining hard to see in this light – 5:30 pm, it reads.
I have no strength to get up and pick up my phone…or maybe it’s my excuse for being lazy. I am sure I wouldn’t have picked it up even if I had been well. Lucky I have a genuine excuse this time to gratify my own conscience. I lie awake shivering in bed, savouring the last bits of the ringtone. ‘Sunset’ – that is what it’s named, I remember. Too tired to think, I decide to try to fall asleep again.