[ Issue 6 / August 2013]
When I taught in the night school for the children of prostitutes and pimps, I thought social mores had a universal virtue, an all-encompassing benevolence in one’s life: of providing hope and security. Those little imps, with no certain paternity, no family moorings, had no such security, and therefore, no hope, or were it the other way round?
I ate early every night, before the men in the family, before the fish curry cooled, before the kheer, cold and waiting in the refrigerator, the way my family liked it, would be scooped ladlefuls into glazed terracotta bowls.
I ate standing at the kitchen counter, without the fuss of a well laid table.
I ate hurriedly so that I could reach the school on time, shepherd the children into the single, bulb-lit classroom that sometimes stank of urine and sometimes of semen and paan.
I ate in silence, so that my voice could drown the noise from the street and reach out to every child in the room, once a vibrant dance hall, now abandoned and laid waste, used at will during the day, converted to a school room at night.
I first met Ratri in front of this dingy space. An average student, she was dedicated to her studies but unable to concentrate. She would often sit up straight from her slouch over the book we were studying, her eyes darting around the classroom at her classmates, at me, and then quickly, towards the single door and the darkness beyond.
Ratri was brought to me by her mother. She was born of a besotted customer who had refused protection. Condom advertisements littered the lane outside and coloured the mouldy walls. Ratri’s mother called her stubborn, born despite her determination to abort. She stood at the end of the corridor, holding her daughter’s hand, and smiled at me, not the practiced smile of her profession but a hesitant, motherly smile that lit up her face. Ratri wore a white frock that barely covered her knees. She liked wearing short clothes, her mother said. I asked her age. Ten. She wanted her to study in my school. Could she? I looked back at the dimly lit corridor and the room at its end. Do you call that a school? Something was better than nothing, she said. When could she start? What would she need? How much would it cost?
On the first of many nights, Ratri entered the classroom in a salwar kurta; bangles on her tiny wrists, gajra around her pigtail, anklets around her thin ankles, a notebook and a pencil in her hand. She sat away from the door. When a woman screamed, she jerked her head up, looked at the doorway. I ought to have shifted this class to a more decent location, a place with promise and hope, but my parents were hurt enough at my choice of voluntary work, they wouldn’t hear of further plans. Blind idealism, they called it; I was supposed to study hard, get a job and a husband.
Grandmother’s red bindi flared when they said that. ‘What’s wrong with what she’s doing?’ Her tiny eyes pinned father down to his chair.
‘Don’t support her, Ma. Ask her to use her brain.’
‘That’s what she’s doing.’
Traditions and customs are meant to be upheld, not broken into fragments. My work was a shard that bled my family’s heart. The shard would sharpen its edges.
At home, Kaka’s freedom was at stake. He had to marry. If not now, when? He would soon be too old to get a pretty bride. He was adamant; he would marry when he wanted to and nobody, he emphasised, nobody could push him into an alliance against his will. He gave me pocket money. ‘You earn nothing from that night school job. Somebody should acknowledge your work.’
He would push the wad of notes into my hands and pat me on the head. Often, he would walk with me between our trees-and-shrubs neighbourhood and the squalid red light area, escorting me to the classroom, waiting till the class filled up. Once in a while, he would smile at the women who brought their children along, at the children who came bounding into the ramshackle building, at Ratri as she walked hand-in-hand with her mother on a rare night of togetherness.
That night, Ratri was late. There were few students in the class; I kept looking at my watch. Kaka waited with me for some time and left, looking back at me over his shoulder. Sometimes the children stayed away, especially when their mothers were less busy or somebody had brought pirated DVDs. But it was a Tuesday, not the usual day for such luxuries. After a quarter of an hour, Ratri walked in, quieter than usual.
We were practising sounds that night. On the whitened blackboard, I had written a string of words: hear dear near fear clear here… A shriek rent the night air, tearing through the street sounds. Ratri’s head jerked up, she sprang out of the classroom. I stood stock still. The children sat quietly; nobody looked at me.
By the time I ran out of the room and followed Ratri to where I knew she lived, a crowd had gathered. I pushed my way in, a vague fear clutching my throat, a dim feeling of being an insignificant character in a routine scenario. Ratri’s mother lay in a pool of blood, slaughtered by some “irate customer”, I was informed. Ratri sat in the darkening, still redness, her arms around her mother’s body.
I pulled her out of the blood and into my arms, shielding her eyes from what she had already seen. What solace could anyone offer? The police would be here soon. What could she say? Which customer? Did she know her mother’s customers?
Holding Ratri close, I remembered the note her mother had thrust into my hand a week ago. “Baad mein pad lena, madam.” The note lay unread in my purse.
I brought Ratri home. That’s what her mother asked for in the note I read too late. What premonition had led her to me? Why me?
The old and sprawling structure I called home was no refuge for her. Culture and ethics were bandied about; arguments flew back and forth between the elders and me. Ratri melted into dark corners, waiting for the clamour to subside.
I tucked her into the bed when I left for night school.
How would my family treat her behind my back?
The classroom was packed. What had brought them there in such numbers? From where had so many children sprung? In their eyes, I was a heroine; at home, the one-eyed witch, sans my magic broom.
She hadn’t eaten the previous night. When I returned, she was wide awake, staring at the sky through the curtained window, her food discarded on the table where I had placed it.
She turned towards me. ‘Can I burn my mother?’
‘Burn? Oh! You mean cremate her?’
She stared at me. I sat beside her, my palm against her soft cheek. ‘You can’t do that Ratri. The police…’ I had to check myself. What would she understand of what the police wanted with the body? I wouldn't let her go through this horror. Her mother was already nobody’s property, discarded, disposed of.
Kaka’s shadow walked into the room and stood still near the table. ‘She has her rights.’ His voice sounded disjointed in the room’s partial darkness.
‘Kaka, that’s not possible any longer, you know that. Let’s discuss this later.’
He left the room.
I turned back to Ratri, asked her what she would like to eat, and almost laughed at myself. If she hadn’t eaten, it wasn’t for matters of taste and preference.
I cradled her face in my palms, ‘Ratri, will you come to the class tomorrow? We’ll go together.’
She turned away and slept.
The shards spread across the house, dug into minds, bled hearts, drew out scorn and anger. I was adamant. Kaka continued to tuck money into my hands, a little more now, sealing my responsibility for Ratri. Grandmother walked on soft feet into my room every night, looked at the two of us, caressed Ratri’s hair and walked out, on soft feet. My parents refused to acknowledge me at meals, in the kitchen, before the television. My grandfather was lucky to be away, they said. He had been away for as long as I could remember.
Ratri took up her studies again, but at home. The neighbours questioned her presence. Whose daughter? Where from? How long would she stay in our house? My family’s answers were vague, but soon a story emerged through the evasiveness. I listened to the evolving narrative without interfering. Someday I would turn into an author and write this ghost-written story, in my own words.
A distant, dead relative’s daughter . . . you know how it is. Her parents have had a tough time. This girl was being targeted, could have been kidnapped, converted, married off . . . poor thing, father dead, mother sent her away before dying . . . some fatal disease, don’t know much. The typical landed family fallen on hard times. Such acres of land they had, all gone now. Poor girl. Where will she go...?
The neighbours ah!ed at our magnanimity and Ratri grew into family lore, a dark shadow hovering around its edges, co-opted into grace in the presence of neighbours. I was busy with studies, night classes and Ratri.
Kaka offered to get her admitted to regular school but she was reluctant. Often I would find her digging into her tiny box of belongings. I bought enough clothes and books for her to forget that tiny chest and its treasures, but she returned to it whenever she thought I wasn’t watching. Grandmother knit a yellow cardigan for her; Ratri kept the cardigan in her trunk.
I had spent the night studying for the semester exam. My eyes burned. I needed to see an ophthalmologist. Somewhere in the house somebody was opening and shutting doors, dragging feet along the old stone corridors. I had just buried my head in my soft pillow when the door to my room opened.
Grandmother stood at the foot of my bed, staring at me. ‘Your kaka is missing.’
‘Missing? He’ll get back, must have gone to meet friends.’
‘He doesn't stay out without informing us; where could he have gone for two days?’
I sprang out of bed. He hadn't been home for two days and I didn't know? Grandmother simply looked at me. I stood by her and looked at Ratri who slept in the other bed, snuggled deep in the folds of her blanket; I led grandmother out of the room.
‘Where did he go yesterday?’
She didn't know.
I walked around the house with her, looking in every room, garden cranny, terrace corner, wherever he could be, possibly or impossibly. Why hadn’t she informed Baba as yet?
‘Did you call?’ I started walking back into my room for my cell phone.
‘I did. No response.’
I looked back at her. ‘Ringing or engaged?’
She looked at me; I knew that expression.
Kaka had left without a trace—no note, tears or supplication that could lend drama to his exit. It was a singularly unexplained, unexpected reality that stared us in the eyes and we didn’t know what to do with its shadows.
A month and more since Kaka’s melting away. I could give it no other term; he wasn’t kidnapped, wasn’t reported dead or murdered. Grandmother refused to let us file a missing person report. I spent many a night trying to reconstruct the history of his disappearance, learnt to face the nightmares that occupied the vacuum he’d left behind.
One night as I tried to self-hypnotise, willing myself to sleep, shutting out all sound and thought, I heard a tinny sound. I opened my eyes and looked around, letting the night create its own meaning and found instead, a series of the night’s meta-images:
Ratri sat hunched before her trunk
an owl flew away from the mango tree outside
Ratri trembled, just a little, or perhaps my eyelids did
a loose page from my still-open book fluttered under the fan
the moon swept across the marble floor
a whisper of a sob, and not my eyelids, but Ratri trembling, just a little, a flutter amidst the shadows the moon left behind
I got out of bed and crept up to her, hugged her for the first time since she came to live with me. Couldn’t I have given her the affection she needed? She trembled in my arms. I looked over her shoulder, into the shallow depths of the trunk she wouldn’t let go. Her hands dipped into the trunk.
‘Ratri,’ I whispered against her ear, feeling motherly all of a sudden. ‘Missing your mother?’
I caressed the tendrils of curly hair where they leapt at her forehead. She was quiet. I slid my hands over hers and into the trunk. Did she like the intimacy of this gesture? Did it strengthen her memories or distort them?
She could look at her mother’s picture, whenever she wanted to, she had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, no need for the subterfuge of darkness. But perhaps that’s how she had lived her life, from darkness to darkness, when life rolled along in heaves and grunts.
Over her pliant arms and into the trunk’s hidden depths, my hands slid into soft layers of clothes and brushed against the unruly edges of knickknacks that she had squirreled away in the battered old thing.
As my hand brushed against what she was holding, Ratri let go and walked away from me. I switched on the bedside lamp and looked at what I held. A photo frame. Ratri’s mother had been beautiful once, beautiful and vibrant, her hair cascaded down her back in wild abandon. Was it in celebration of love? Was it love for the man beside her?
When I looked at the face of the man in the picture I felt like a cliché out of some old story. Kaka, younger and more handsome than I remembered him, his eyes soft with a glow I had never seen in them.
I looked at Ratri. Her face was turned towards the window.
What kind of a joke was this? I went up to her and turned her around. I needed answers; I pointed to the photograph, at the man in it.
I switched on the bedside light, determined to call her bluff. She shut her eyes against the sudden glare.
‘Answer me, Ratri. How can you be so sure?’
Shards spread through our lives, lined every niche, hung suspended in the drooping flowers, lurked in the folds of bedspreads and cushions, clung to the wetness of rice and the tang of the tamarind pickle.
Kaka’s little acts of kindness and understanding, his walks to the night class, his sensitivity to Ratri....began to make sense, the kindly acts of a coward.
The tempest racked the cracked walls. The wind caught in the hollows among the old bricks and blew through the gaps, banshee shrieks that echoed throughout the house.
Grandmother withdrew into the kitchen, immersed in thoughts she wouldn’t share. Her shadow still floated into my room at night to look in on Ratri and me, but my parents turned into strangers; the neighbours were no longer welcome to stories about the dead relative and her daughter, but the story itself began to twist and turn, till Ratri became a character.
‘She must be the spirit that is said to haunt our family.’ My mother, educated, suave, elegant, what had happened to her?
‘Which spirit, Ma?’
We were mutating into our fears.
Ratri in her own bed, I in mine, my face turned towards the wall. When was the last time I had looked at her—Ratri, my cousin?
What happened to my ideas about family and security? Why did I bring her home? What had I hoped to achieve? What had I felt, then? What now? What was the taste clinging to my palate, making my tongue heavy when I tried to talk to her?
When did she become illegitimate in my eyes?
‘What happened, no more social work? You were never in favour of it anyway.’
Ma’s question surprised me.
I was in the kitchen trying to chop vegetables for her. The family was at home, everybody except Kaka, and I wanted to settle down quickly with a book I wanted to read. Night school had wormed its way into my time, now I was determined to get back to all the reading that had accumulated on my shelf.
In my room, Ratri bent low over her notebook. I switched on the table lamp and leaned back against my colourful cushions, my book on my knees. In the mirror that clung to one side of the wall, I saw her look at me and look away.
The mirror distracted me.
College, books, friends, family, food; life was back to normal, except for Ratri’s presence in the mirror whenever I looked into it. One evening, when she was not in the room, I threw my book at its own reflection. Thud! It fell back on the floor. The mirror was more resilient than I thought.
Kaka was still away and we had no clue to his whereabouts. Grandmother would not let us go to the police.
‘Why don’t you want him back?’ I asked.
‘The police will come with their queries here. How will you explain Ratri to them?’
I hadn’t thought of that.
Two months after Ratri’s revelation, she disappeared. I looked for her in the garden, around the house, even in the kitchen where she was not allowed.
Zap! The spirit from the story had vaporised.
Grandmother floated about the house fanning incense fumes through the rooms, wraith-like. When she entered my room in the evenings, she carried the tray of incense and ghee lamps with her, replacing Ratri’s smell with fragrance from josh sticks and the burning ghee, her right palm slicing through the smoky air, muttering so low that I could only see her lips move and the flame glow in her eyes.
‘Where were all of you when Ratri walked out of the house?’
Grandmother looked at me, the flame from the lamp flickering in her eyes, leaping off her complexion. She turned to go, but I caught up with her, tugging at her saree edge. ‘Tell me?’
She stopped at the threshold and looked into my eyes. ‘Where were you?’
‘I don’t even know when she left, how do I answer you?’
‘That’s what I want to know.’
I was perplexed. ‘You mean I should have kept an eye on her even when I was not at home? Is that it? None of you wanted her here, so you didn’t bother to check what was happening with her.’
‘Did you want her?’
‘Why else would I have got her home?’
She turned away and walked into other rooms, leaving behind the fragrance of her worship.
I stared into the mirror for nights on end. It stared back at me, empty.
I returned to the night school after more than two months. A few students sat in a desultory manner on the floor, playing the universal games of childhood, uncaring of my presence. No standing up in greeting, no acknowledgement. Where were the voices ringing loud and clear, imbuing the otherwise noisome nights outside with meaning and purpose? Tonight, they were indifferent. I sat in the lone chair and turned the pages of the books before me. In front of me, the children had formed a circle around their shared books and were looking at me with the stillness of blind obedience.
‘What do you want to learn today?’ I tried to fake a smile but they were children; they would see through my artifice.
Outside, a siren shrilled through the night, a flower vendor hawked fresh flowers and gajras, laughter mingled with footsteps and low babble from the neighbourhood.
‘Would you like to listen to stories?’
They stared back, barely registering their acceptance.
From my bag, I took out Singhasan Battisi, the stories of King Vikramaditya’s throne and turned the pages swiftly; I knew almost all of them well. Which of these should I tell them tonight? The stories were a delight for children, but they were also deep, the perfect metaphor for Raja Bhoja’s introspection, his self-assessment, his need to judge his own capability, integrity, sincerity, the very nature of his intention to do good, his ability to do good...
I looked at the children again, seeking in their eyes what I sought in my heart. I had lost the credibility Ratri had given me. I was here for timepass; isn’t that how they would describe me?
At the brothel where her mother used to ply her trade, new faces lined the dingy corridors and doorframes. Children of all ages crawled, ran around. Was Ratri peeping through one of the cubbyholes? Was she....? Unable to endure the image that had brought me running to this carnage of the soul and self, I looked around desperately, feeling like a character out of some C-grade film, being pushed around, touched surreptitiously, my mind a blur of possibilities that wouldn’t let me return home.
When I did, I returned with the burden of my irresponsibility.
The next morning, as I left home for college, I saw Grandmother climb into a rickshaw. Her outings were rare and never unaccompanied. I walked quickly to catch up with her, but on second thought, I decided to follow on my scooter.
At the other end of town, where the hills begin and the road winds uphill, there is a charming little cottage that my grandfather built for himself, for his meditation and the way of life he has chosen over family. We would often visit him, but our presence interfered with his spiritual life, he’d said, so we were barred from visiting. Here he lives an austere life with a small group of followers.
After many years I find myself at the door of this cottage once again, close on the heels of Grandmother.
On my way, as I’d trailed the route Grandmother took, I knew where it would lead me. All I needed was confirmation.
At the door to the tiny temple grandfather has erected, Kaka and Ratri stand with Grandmother, talking. I stand half hidden behind a Neem tree, chewing on its twig, allowing its bitterness to lap at my tongue. When Grandfather comes out to stand beside them, a palm on Ratri’s head, I leave, unseen, unheard.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer and independent fiction editor based in Pune.
In 2008, she received Oxford Bookstores debuting writers' (second) prize for her anthology, The Jungle Stories. Her short stories have appeared in various national and international anthologies like the Africa-Asia anthology Behind the Shadows available on Amazon Kindle (2012); Zubaan’s Breaking the Bow, an anthology of speculative fiction based on The Ramayana (2012); Ripples,an Anthology of Short Stories by Indian Women Writers (2010) and in Unisun Publications' Vanilla Desires (2010). Her articles, book reviews, short stories, and a novella, Petals in the Sun have been extensively published across electronic publications.