[ Issue 5 / May 2013]

Edge of the Village by Jawahara Saidullah

I was ten years old when she crawled into the village, growling and snapping, the smell of rotting meat coming off her in waves. She was naked, the bones under her skin jutting out like river driftwood. She walked on all fours, covered in dirt, marked by thorns and stones, hair matted and stuck together like a screen of reeds. I was looking for the small, wooden gulli that Makhan, the champion of gulli-danda in the village, had hit with his stick into the edge of the brush where the forest began. One moment I was bent over, parting some undergrowth looking for the little wooden dowel, the next her face was level with mine, teeth bared at me. For a moment we stared at each other.

Then I did the only thing any boy can do when confronted by a creature from a nightmare. I screamed. Then I ran. She ran behind me on her hands and knees, her four-legged gait easily keeping pace. I picked up a few stones from the dusty ground and threw them at her. One struck her on the top of her head, opening up a gash from which blood flowed. She screamed, a guttural shriek of pain that whistled through my head like the train that sped lightning-fast every night along the north side of our village.

I faltered and she lunged at me, screaming all the while. Quickly I threw the rest of the stones at her, only some hitting their marks. So engrossed was I with escaping the creature that I did not notice that the entire village was now upon us. They had heard my shouts and her screams from the edge of the forest, past the fields in which wheat still grew tall and green.

“Ka bhaya, ka hoi raha hai?”

I heard the shouts and collapsed with relief, into the dust, side-by-side with her.

They tied her up in the old, un-used cowshed that first night. They had no choice really for she lunged at Shantaram Ji with bared teeth, talon-like nails aimed at his face. Someone held her arms, another her legs and two steadied her neck as a rope was used to pin her arms to her sides. A shorter length of rope held her ankles together. Then the two were linked and secured slackly to an overhead beam so that she would have some freedom of movement. The men had to be careful because all the while she snapped and growled aggressively. She could move but she couldn’t escape. When one of them took her a plate of food and a bowl of water, she shoved her face into both, snuffling through the food before spitting up the dal and rice in disgust but eagerly lapped at the water, stooping down and using her tongue to scoop up the liquid like a thirsty dog.

The rest of us, the women and children, stood by the door and outside, peering in through the windows looking at her. She burped loudly as she lay back against the hay. The sustenance seemed to reassure her that we were not her enemies. She turned and smiled at us, baring her teeth, lips curled back, a grimace that made us take several steps back. Her gaze collided with mine then, and held. She made a piteous mewling sound, smiling at me again, eyes downcast. I was a familiar face to her I suppose. I broke away from the crowd and ran home, my heart thumping.

Rama Prasad Kaka brought out his drum early the next morning, just after dawn, beating it loudly to elicit its sonorous tone as he walked through the lanes announcing the emergency session of the panchayat under the old banyan tree in the center of the village. Curiosity took all of us there.

The five panches, two men, two women and the head of the council of five, Sarpanch Ji Shantaram, sat on dhurrie-covered string charpais. By mid-morning the strengthening spring sun was beating down on those of us too insignificant to get a space close to the rustling, shady canopy of the ancient tree.

“What are you thinking, Sarpanch Ji, of this creature?”

Lajja Ji was the speaker. She was the oldest member of the council, a no-nonsense widow of about 70 years who owned 50 acres of land that she managed herself since her good-for-nothing son had run off to the city twenty years ago to become a film hero and never came back. I knew this because ma often told me and my sisters tales of this bad son, hoping that none of us, especially I, ever turned out that way. She wanted to keep me close to her always. Sons are our own, she told me, but daughters are meant to light up someone else’s home. Daughters are born already belonging to others. “You are mine forever my little prince,” she would tell me, stroking my brow as I fell asleep each night.

Shanataram Ji took a long toke off the clay chillum, sucking in his cheeks to take in the strong smoke, then letting it snake out like grey ghosts through his nostrils. He closed his eyes as he chose his words then opened them as he spoke.

“Obviously, sister, this girl was being raised by wolves. This is what I am thinking. She is being one of those creatures who were being created from the hairs of the body of our dear Lord Krishna. We are being blessed by our lord, blessed I am telling you.”

The other council members nodded, as did most people in the crowd, used to the sarpanch’s mythological flights of fancy. The sound of her keening, animal wail emanated from the old cowshed. There was silence, then a barrage of confused questions.

“Yes, yes, but where is she coming from?”

“Arrey bhaiya, who are her people being?”

“And what are we going to be doing with her?”

These questions came from Chitra Ji and the two other male panches who rarely spoke.

Lajja Ji spoke then, her wispy, old-woman voice as authoritative as the white hair on her head. When she spoke everyone listened, even Sarphanch Ji for he was as old as her good-for-nothing son, and the wisdom of the aged was to be valued.

“I am not being certain,” she said, “but I think I am knowing something. Is that old potter’s widow here? Her name I’m forgetting. Is she here?”

“Jamuna Bai?” a voice came from the crowd, “No, she is never coming to these meetings. Should I be going to get her?”

The man was told to do so and sped off to get the woman who lived in a ramshackle hut. It was a while before they returned.

“Ji?” the middle-aged woman with white-black hair asked, the respect in her folded hands at odds with the annoyed expression on her face. Streaks of dried clay were embedded under her fingernails and there was a small smear on her forehead. Her sari had once been pink but now was liberally stained with clay and who knows what else.

“Oh Jamuna Bai, what was your girl looking like, the one who disappeared?” Lajja Ji’s question was terse though tender.

The potter’s widow looked then, at the panches where they sat under the tree, their faces shaded by a lacy fretwork of leaves.

“What?” she asked rudely, her voice loud amidst the silent crowd that awaited her response.

“Your girl,” Lajja Ji repeated patiently, gently, “you know the baby that the wolf was taking, when you were out gathering firewood…what was she looking like?”

“What should I be saying? She was looking like a baby, like your girl or yours or yours. Why are you torturing me with these questions? She was my child so she was looking like me only, like her three older sisters. What silly-silly questions are you all bothering me with today? I am going now. The pots are not going to make themselves are they? And who else is being here to feed me?”

“Stop,” the council spoke in unison as she turned to leave.

“Was she having any marks, anything, a spot, scar, something? It’s important to be knowing this Jamuna Bai. We are not meaning to be causing you pain.”

Still visibly annoyed, the woman thought for a while.

“Yes, yes, she was having a birthmark…black and raised, shaped like the crescent moon, in the middle of her back. Like the mark of death for her, it was Yamraj’s mark, claiming her in his name. The lord of death was claiming her already when she was kicking in my belly.”

She turned to go, then stopped as all the panches yelled again, “Stop.”

She spoke, after a pause, “Look, I have to be going. What are you wanting from me?”

Lajja Ji said, “We are needing just one moment, Jamuna Bai, just one.”

Perhaps Jamuna Bai had re-lived the incident over and over again through the years and did not care to do it again. Perhaps she had run out of tears a while ago. So she closed her eyes and sat down in the dust, uncaring.

Three men brought the creature out, leading her by a rope. She looked scared and for the first time I felt bad for her. She looked small and lost, her head bowed in defeat, body bent over itself. Someone had draped an old sheet around her, to cover her animal nature. She stumbled as she was led as if uncomfortable at being made to walk upright, as if she was exposed, open in some dangerous way.

Lajja Ji walked over and moved the sheet slightly. The girl cowered, crying.

“Stop crying. I am not hurting you. No one is hurting you.”

The girl-creature obeyed the quiet, firm tone even if the words were foreign to her. She sniveled more quietly, her eyes cast on the ground, staring at her own shadow.

“Jamuna Bai, please,” Lajja Ji called, without turning away from the pitiful being in front of her. She gestured to the potter’s widow to join her who suddenly started as if becoming aware of where she was. Jamuna Bai slowly walked to the creature who sat hunched over and looked to where Lajja Ji was pointing on the creature’s back. She screamed.

“My child, this is being my girl, Hema, oh Hema. You are coming back to me, after all these years?”

Her limbs seemed to turn to water for she collapsed on the ground. Then slowly she crawled to where the girl-creature was huddled and tried to hug her. The girl-creature responded by recoiling from the touch, then scratching Jamuna Bai’s face, scoring trails of blood down her cheek. Confusion broke out as the startled men let go of the rope.

Their captive bounded into the crowd dispersing it like dust in a storm. I stood still, transfixed. She came up to me, ran behind me, shaking as she sat on her haunches, close to the ground. She was so terrified, so overwhelmed and alone, that I felt, for the first time, the need to protect her. She had first appeared to me, she had chosen me as her savior and I could not back down from the challenge. I stood taller, shielding her behind me.

“Look, look, she is trusting the boy, liking him.”

“Maybe, we should be letting her stay at his house until she is recognizing her mother.”

“We have to be asking Lallan and his wife,” someone said, talking of my parents.

My parents agreed though they were wary of letting a wild creature into the house. However, a loosely woven cot was placed for her in the sheltered part of the verandah. Jamuna Bai brought over bedding and some clothes that belonged to her two married daughters. Her third and youngest child, a five-year old boy, stared at his long-lost sister in disbelief and fear and was snarled at for his expression.

Jamuna Bai was to provide food and was to pay my parents some money each week Hema was to stay with us. My parents were happy with the extra money but neither they nor my sisters ever allowed Hema to come close to them. My mother was especially cold to her and tried her unsuccessful best to keep Hema away from me. My sisters would run screaming each time the poor girl-creature even looked in their directions. I had no such choice, even if her constant affection sometimes went from being flattering to annoying.

She followed me around faithfully, bringing me half-eaten pieces of fruit and once a dead partridge. Most often she still walked on all fours and as she presented me with her little gifts she would sit on the ground looking at it silently, hopefully until I picked up her distasteful offerings. Then she would smile and do a little dance on her haunches, growling and howling in ecstasy.

Sarpanch Ji instructed me to always address her by her name so she would grow to recognize it and perhaps learn to speak. One day I showed her a half-torn and faded film poster of Hema Malini. It was stuck on a brick wall from when the traveling cinema had come by six months ago, showing an old movie, ‘Dreamgirl.’ Now, bleached by the sun, the actress’s face seemed fey, ghostly even. Just her large eyes looked out clearly from the poster, searing the watcher’s gaze.

I touched the poster on the wall with the palm of one hand, saying, “Hema,” then reached out to touch her shoulder, saying “Hema,” again.

She growled, “’ema.”

I touched her again, the palm of my hand, against the warm roughness of her skin. “Hema,” I said, then touched my chest, “Gopal.”

“’ema, Gopaaa,” she managed.

“Yes,” I hollered in triumph.

She did too and soon both of us were howling like wolves, laughing and turning in circles until we fell into the dust together.

As a child I knew that Gormint was a very big and important woman. I think she was something like a queen, all-powerful, telling everyone what to do. That is what Daaktar Ji would tell us.

“Gormint has ordered this,” he would say in his clipped city-speech, “Gormint has ordered me to give all children in Papri this needle in your arm. All children must be brought to the clinic.”

All that I and the other children of the village knew is that when Daaktar Ji rode into Papri in his loud, shaking, blue car, we would be in pain. We hated the needles he would stick us with, the bitter medicines he made us swallow and the awful cold feel of the flat, round thing he used to press against our chests and bellies. But what we hated most of all was the sly stroke of his finger as it furtively parted our backsides and darted in. All of us children hated Daaktar Ji and were scared of Gormint. Our parents were over-awed by his educated presence, silenced by the glaze of contempt that coated his words.

When I heard the familiar rattle of his car bouncing down the rutted cattle path, I muttered to my friends as we played seven tiles, “Here comes important Daaktar Ji to give us pokes and pinches. Who knows what Gormint wants now?”

But Daaktar Ji was not here for us this time. He and the two policemen from the city who came with him were here for Hema. He wanted to look at her, to poke and prod and look inside her. Even though Hema was now starting to trust her mother, she still held my hand tightly, mutely begging me to go with her.

“Hmmm, now let us see,” Daaktar Ji said, “by the order of the Gormint I must find out more about this creature.”

I couldn’t really understand all his words. Not only was his city-talk strange, the ends of his words also disappeared under his bushy moustache.

“No one else with her, no one. I must look at her alone,” he said but then conceded when Hema started to howl. She also repeated the one word I had taught her that had became her favorite as she recognized its power: No.

“Nahin, nahin,” she cried when Daaktar Ji sent out her mother who had dissolved into tears when her daughter started crying. Jamuna Bai had gone from stoicism to extreme emotion upon the return of her child.

“Nahiiiiin,” Hema screamed even louder and more desperately when he tried to disentangle her fingers from mine before taking her into the smaller room. The village children called it the nanga kamra, for it was a room, and we had to be naked in there, alone with him. All the children hated the nanga kamra and I did not want Hema to be by herself in there, with him. I held tightly to her fingers as well.

“Theek hai, theek hai,” he said grudgingly, stepping back hastily as she bared her teeth at him.

He spoke into some kind of small machine as he stared at her.

“Age about ten, nine, hard to tell, might even be eight or seven, definitely still pre-pubescent.”

Hema smiled at me contentedly as she looked at the wall calendar fluttering in the slight breeze from the open window. A beautiful woman held a radio aloft, her smile dazzling me even from the flat surface of the paper.

“ema?”

“Not Hema,” I said, “you Hema.”

I pointed at the picture, “Zeenat.”

She tried but could not get past the ‘zee’ sound. Daaktar Ji continued his monotonous talking. She continued trying to say this new name, the ‘zee’ whistling through her gapped teeth.

I soothed her as he parted her oiled, stringy hair and searched through her scalp.  He moved and rotated her arms and legs, paying special attention to the distended, corded muscles of her forearms. I helped him get her on the table. Then he stood at a loss.

“Boy, ask her to open her mouth,” he ordered.

“Hema,” I said, “aaaaa,” opening my mouth wide so she could mimic me.

She obeyed and let the man peer inside, taking in her gums, the slanted teeth and the smell of rotted flesh that still came from within. Though we fed her no meat she usually managed to find some on her own.

“Hmmm, hmmm, very interesting,” he said, his nose wrinkled in disgust.

“Close your eyes boy,” he said as if I had not seen Hema naked before.

She had arrived naked after all and took every opportunity to shuck off her loose clothes. I shrugged and pretended to close my eyes. He talked to himself some more, while the two policemen shuffled nervously in the corner of the small room, chatting, smoking their smelly beedis and looking out the little window.

Daaktar Ji lifted the loose shift-dress her mother had managed to dress her in. It fell straight down her body to her ankles and she wore nothing else underneath. It had been a struggle the first few times but now she tolerated—barely—the feel of cloth on her body.

He examined her belly, then made her lay on her side as he looked at her back and noted the raised crescent-moon birthmark. I watched his thick finger slowly slide down within her body, between her legs. Before I could alert her, she jerked upright, grabbed his hand and sank her teeth into the meaty part of the palm. One quick bite, then she flung his hand away, blood flowing in shiny ropes, her teeth stained red.

He shouted, “She bit, she bit me. Oh god, now I have rabies. Rabies.”

I laughed and laughed, “Raabis, he is having raabis,” having no idea what he was babbling about. It was a funny word but funnier still was his hopping dance of pain.

I grabbed Hema’s hand and we ran away from the clinic in the ensuing confusion. I told my friends and they looked at her with a bit more indulgence when she hung around me as we played. Sometimes they would even invite her to play with simple gestures but would give up when she stared uncomprehendingly. She was content to huddle on the dusty earth and watch. Her eyes were always on me, and I realized I was becoming more than just accustomed to her gaze.

Daaktar Ji confirmed the panchayat’s suspicions before he left that day. Jamuna Bai had laid her eight-month old baby down, still in her swaddling clothes, on the ground as she began the laborious task of collecting sticks for her kitchen fire. She saw a quick grey-brown flash emerge from the forest thicket and run off with her child. The village and the unfortunate mother had assumed that the wolf had eaten the baby. Over the years, families had lost livestock and a child here and there to the wolves of the forest. No trace of Jamuna Bai’s baby had ever been found.

“Perhaps,” Daaktar Ji said, “a she-wolf had lost her own cub or perhaps she felt tender towards this little child and brought her up as her own.”

“But why is she coming back now?” Jamuna Bai asked.

“Perhaps the wolf-mother died or perhaps as her wolf brothers and sisters grew she could not keep up and they sent her to live among her own people. We will never know this unless we keep teaching her to speak our language. We can try and make her one of us. Even I don’t fully understand this so how can you people? Regardless, she is feral, a wolf-girl.”

We all looked at Hema but she smiled only at me. Then she turned back to the ground, picking up the rat she had hunted and was now tearing into with evident zest. That was when Daaktar Ji paled and jumped into his rusty car, fleeing with his police escorts.

***

 There was a flurry of reporters in our midst: trucks with strange poles on them, Gormint people and women wearing pants like the men who accompanied them. Strangeness from the city settled on our village like a plastic haze. These strangers focused their picture machines on Hema as she sat next to her mother or as she tried to eat the rice and dal clearly unpalatable to her. They were full of questions, asking the most stupid ones:

“Were you scared when she came?”

“What does she like to eat?”

“How old is she?”

“What did you think when you saw her?”

Usually we stared at them, sometimes answering them, but mostly we learned to avoid them. However, they were persistent so they would follow her as she ran to meet me at play. They watched as she gave up her uncomfortable upright stance and ran on all fours, bounding in joy, and spoke in excited tones on the machines they held.

Soon there were no new stories to be found in our midst and these new residents of our village trickled back out, returning to their own lives. Our story had become stale. We knew this because they ran out of questions. What was once new became normal. Papri had a wolf-girl who now lived with her mother. Done.

We saw the slow blossoming of emotion between the mother and her child. Gradually Hema was allowing her mother to feed her, to caress her even. Sometimes she would reach forward and lick Jamuna Bai’s hand, and when her mother stroked her hair she would lean into the cupped palm, closing her eyes and nuzzling her skin. She breathed in her mother’s scent and it calmed her.

Now that she had moved to her mother’s home I had more freedom. But after seeing her every day for six months I realized I missed her. My parents missed Jamuna Bai’s few rupees but that was all. My sisters were relieved and my mother was happy to be rid of her.

We created a new ritual. Hema would wait for me all day, under the tree outside my school and together we would walk for a while through the fields. Then I would drop her home before going home myself. I continued the task given to me by Sarpanch Ji. I taught her to say new words each day. No one else could do that, not even her mother, no matter how she tried.

The summer I was fourteen and Hema sixteen, the village Master Ji got me a scholarship to a school in the city. He came home to talk to my parents who wanted me to stop going to school altogether and help my father in the fields.

“The boy is being very smart,” he told them, “he will be making his life in the city. What will he be doing here? All is being taken care of, you should not be worrying. He will be staying in the hostel but will be coming back home on all holidays. I cannot be teaching him any more. I myself am knowing no more science or maths. He is already knowing more than me. In the city he will be learning all this and English also. Big money he will be making for you, good for your old age no? Better than doing this back-breaking farming-sharming.”

He told them I could be a doctor or an engineer or a big teacher in a city college. His words became a door to dreams I had never dared to see before. I yearned suddenly to see new things, talk to new people, live all over the place, to discover people in a totally different way.

“When you coming back?” Hema asked when I told her.

“Soon.”

She smiled and said firmly, comfortably, “Tomorrow,”

“No,” I said firmly, for time, especially the future was a not-yet-grasped concept for her.

I pointed at the green fields of wheat.

“When that is being yellow.”

She looked stricken, “Too long.”

“Yes,” I said.

We sat in silence for a moment, then she reached out and grabbed my hand. I looked around, hoping no one could see. What was fine at ten was not at fourteen.

Still holding my hand, she brought it to her breast, pushing aside the loose neck of one her usual shift dresses and held it to her heart.

“Hurts,” she said.

I nodded, not sure what to say.

I felt the warmth of her skin, and underneath, the flutter of her heart. My hand moved. She stilled just for a moment. Then we were like eager dogs, wrestling each other onto the ground, breathing hard. She growled, snapped, her teeth clenching together on the side of my skin, marking but not hurting me. I did the same to her and for long moments all I could hear was the pounding of my blood in my ears and the sounds we made, the tearing of her dress, and the pop-pop of the buttons she scattered when she opened up my shirt.

“Bas, stop it, stop it now. Let go of him you evil she-wolf. You are devouring my boy. Leave him.”

My mother stood above us, horrified at seeing her son with the creature, both of us half-naked, marked by the others teeth, wet from the other’s saliva, both breathing hard, eyes glazed. The horror in my mother’s face was reflected back to me. I moved to stop her from striking Hema with the tree-limb she brandished.

“No ma, ma, she wasn’t hurting me. We were…”

But what could I say we were doing? The knowledge was already written on my mother’s face, knowledge and revulsion. She threw away the limb, which landed with a loud clatter at Hema’s feet, who shrank into herself and rocked, her face pressed into her knees.

Ma pinched the tender lobe of my ear and twisted my arm painfully behind my back as she led me away.

Hema followed tentatively on her callused knees and palms, keeping a safe distance for she knew that my mother could not tolerate her.

“All day I am looking for you, here and there, everywhere. And you are here, behaving like an animal, like this…this creature you have brought into the village. One slap you will be getting from me. I was being sad you were going to the sheher.  Not any more. The farther you are getting away from this evil thing, this whore-wolf, the better.”

“But…but,” I protested, “I was just telling her goodbye. Sarpanch Ji said I should be the one to tell her and Jamuna Bai also….”

“Oh yes, big-big talk of the Sarpanch Ji. Tell him and that fat wife of his to have their good-for-nothing son take care of this…this thing. And as for Jamuna Bai I will have plenty to say to her, letting this foul creature run around in the village, trying to trap my boy. My son is not altu-faltu. Are you? Are you useless?”

“No ma,” I said, trying to avoid one of her stinging, open-palmed slaps, my earlobe still on fire.

“You stay away from her from now on, do you understand?”

I nodded.

Abruptly she let me go, turning around to face Hema, who stopped, still on all fours, eyes lowered, tongue nervously licking her lips. Her newly learned words had deserted her and she mewled in distress.

“Leave my boy alone,” my mother screamed at her.

I turned to look back before we came to the final bend. She was still there where we had left her, her head almost touching the ground as she sat bent over. The trees of the forest cast giant shadows that encompassed her and the dying sun turned her into a silhouette. As I watched she cocked her head to one side as if trying to listen to some sound coming from a distance, or from long ago.

*

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Jawahara Saidullah’s first novel The Burden of Foreknowledge was published by Roli Books in 2007. Edge of the Village was short-listed for the 2012 Fish Prize for short fiction. For four years Jawahara was a weekly columnist for Mid-Day newspaper in Mumbai. Her essay, War Stories was included in the 2006 Seal Press anthology Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War, Faith and Sexuality. Many other pieces have appeared in print and online. She has just completed her second novel and is working on an exciting non-fiction project. She currently lives in that most literary of towns, Concord, MA, a long way away from Allahabad where her life and her literary journey began.

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