by Ranjabali Chaudhuri
AS A PRIEST meanders through the rituals of my wedding, a dust storm breaks out. Guests warble about signs and omens. The dust pierces my eyes, disguises me as a sad, tearful bride. I have nothing to cry about. Little brides cry because they have to leave a loving family behind for an unknown future. I have no parents. I have spent my fifteen years balancing back-breaking work with beatings and hunger. Like all other girls I am taught that my husband’s family is my real family. So when I get on the dinghy to Kolkata, my mind sets out to obliterate its past.
My new family is a vast improvement over my older one. Although my husband is a lot older than I had imagined, he is not unpleasant. My mother-in-law is called caustic and belligerent by those who have not known true venom. My older sister-in-law, Gita, insists on feeding me extra helpings of rice or potatoes at every meal. My younger sister-in-law, Debi, teaches me how to braid my hair whenever the fashion in this city changes. I suppose it is what sisters do. I blend easily, for there is nothing special about me. My husband and his brothers own a shop, where they work from sunrise to a few hours after sunset. I never get to see these men in daylight.
Ours is a community of artists, believed to have been ordained by gods themselves. In villages, our people paint divine and mystical stories on cloth scrolls and large clay pots. Traveling storytellers use these to make their tales come alive. In the city, we paint on plates of clay, aluminum sheets, squares of wood—small flat surfaces tourists can pack with ease, as keepsakes. Our little cameos tell big stories. Most buyers, I learn, favour radiant goddesses, angry wives, drunken fights and figures from history. The Ingrej, whose tastes guide the city’s richer families, have a particular fondness for love-struck young couples, sparse backgrounds and soft, dreamy colours.
Every morning, we grind turmeric and cinnabar, slate and conch shells to the finest powder, until the grinding stone digs deep wells in our palms. We mix these with water, drop by drop to make paints that are neither thick, nor runny. We grind tamarind seeds, mix them with starch to make glue so the colours stick to our paintings. We bind, measure and snip hair from goats’ tails for our brush heads. Our mother-in-law gives us a list of things to draw, things she decides sell the best. We work on as many pictures as we can all morning, so the paints can dry in the afternoon sun. When our husbands return home in the evenings, their bags of wares for the next day are packed and ready.
These busy mornings demand quiet and complete focus. Since there is never any light inside our house, our mother-in-law barricades us on a piece of street at our doorstep, with her dagger-like eyes and serpentine tongue. It seems unfair to draw pictures of people having adventures day after day after day. I am not even allowed to go for a walk around the neighbourhood. The street outside our house is the only slice of the city I am allowed to see. All it has are traders and our neighbours, hand-drawn wagons and an occasional horse. We only ever leave the house to attend weddings or festivals. I do not protest, however. Standing out tempts misery.
I assume this is what happy looks like, and learn to savour the few quiet hours that work brings with itself. We live behind the famous temple of Kalighat. Our house is one of the many tin-roofed, lime-coated, brick boxes bound together by mortar that line the streets around the temple. The thin walls block no sound. We learn whose wife spends too much, who drinks, who has got an upset stomach—without stepping out of the door. Every night, when our mother-in-law goes to sleep, Gita, Debi and I concoct whispered stories from the sounds we hear all evening. Gita and Debi say it is the best part of their days. I wait to become like them, to be their true sister, not the pretend one that I am.
On some nights, in spite of being exhausted, I cannot sleep. In rooms conjured and split by hanging old saris, I tiptoe to the window at the back of the house open to a gutter-lined alley. Here I watch the drunkards and other revelers of the night from our paintings come to life. Women in bright jewellery and flower studded hair let men young and old hang on their shoulders, squeeze their waists, mumble into their ears. Through this window, I learn that an Ingrej man’s long, curled white hair is really a wig. Priests escape divinity and soak in forbidden alcohol. I paint some of them during the days, never too often, so no one gets suspicious. Much as I want to, I cannot sit there all night. Respectable women are not supposed to partake in the city’s sinful nights.
For a long time, these nights are the only adventure I ever have. I am surprised by how long they have remained a secret. I grow taller and thicker thanks to all of Gita’s feeding. I have a little boy too, who spends most of his days snuggled on my mother-in-law’s lap while I work. He is almost seven months old when we find out that Debi has her second child on the way. We make a list of boys’ names that sound similar to my son’s. We imagine them growing up naughty and inseparable, like heroes in myths. We do not talk about a girl, the child Debi really wants, when our mother-in-law is around. We think we will whisper all about that at night. We will never have that conversation. Joy has begun to pack her bags. Soon it shall abandon our house forever.
In the morning, my mother-in-law hands me a large sheet of wood. She wants me to make something dazzling enough to make a tourist hanker for it at first sight. Something that can be sold at a higher price than our usual fare. Winter is the season for weddings and festivals. People from the hills and forest villages believe winter is the only tolerable season to visit our city and descend in hordes. The Ingrej spend the entire season exchanging gifts. It is our busiest time of the year.
My mind whirls around searching for a subject. The scenes of the night will not work on this scale. Instead I dip into old daydreams. Ones that I had as a child longing to escape the village. Patched together from stories of queens and princesses, a wedding procession begins to take shape. The figures arrive, guide my brush along, confident of the parts they will play in the picture. I sit engrossed, losing myself in their antics. For the first time in my life, art is no chore.
In my painting, the bride is no lanky, shivering teenager. I blend some orange with red to give her sari a tinge of fire. She is resplendent, reclining on a palanquin, smelling a rosebud like an empress. A real grand empress, not the Ingrej queen who has named herself one. Little men and women, even a little me, shower flowers around her. A dancing girl sprays perfume on her path. The palanquin itself is painted with yellow and pink flowers and golden birds. Four gigantic, muscled men with white turbans haul it. In the sky, nestled among clouds, divine beings with glowing green skin blow conch shells announcing her arrival. Even the sun smiles proud. When I am done, Gita helps me add a border of dancing peacocks all around the picture.
My mother-in-law, who can not hide her smug satisfaction at the picture, orders Gita and Debi to get lunch ready. As a reward, she gives me time off my chores to play with my son. She lays the picture out to dry under the lazy winter sun. As my son plays with my shell and coral bangles, I spot a man with a large jar strapped to his back with straps of greasy rags. A pipe connected to the jar makes a spiral on his shoulder. My mother-in-law spots him too, and sends me inside to fetch the rusty, crooked can where we store kerosene.
When I return, I find the kerosene man frozen a few paces away from our house, his eyes transfixed by the painting. My mother-in-law calls out to him, asks him to fill the can.
He approaches, stuttering, his eyes still startled. “Who...who made this, Ma?”
My ever affable mother-in-law brings down the can with a loud clang and says, “Keep your evil eye away from it.”
The kerosene man does not even acknowledge this insult. He fills our container and leaves, almost slinks away. It is not the last I will see of him that day.
A few hours later, as the sky prepares for dusk, my husband and his brothers come home early. They ask us to get dressed in our finer saris, promise us a miracle. Forgetting all about the painting and the kerosene man, we follow our men to a large square. We join a buzzing crowd being fueled by tea sellers with their piping hot kettles, and men selling muri with telebhaja. The Ingrej sit, wigged and powdered, encircled by bamboo barricades. Their men stand behind chairs. Their women sit, bound in layers of cloth from head to toe. Although it is cold, just looking at their clothes make me long for a hand fan. I wonder how they breathe.
An Ingrej man in a long hat and no wig, speaks through a large cone. It blows his voice up, sends it floating, echoing to our ears. We understand nothing other than the excitement in his voice. Those in the circle clap at his words. He waits for the applause to wither and then clutches on a metal stick. Behind him stands a long iron pole, with a glass lamp on it. When he pulls the stick, it lights up, as if by magic. The light is brighter than ten kerosene lamps. For a few moments, the crowd is stupefied. Someone claps, breaks the spell.
We return home late, filled with laughter and street food. From the crowds we gather that the lamp can burn all night on its own. There is excitement about the Ingrej government planning to plant these across the city. I ask how the beggars would sleep if the streets were lit up all night. My husband and his brothers laugh at my question. They assure me that the lamps, like everything new, are only for the Ingrej neighbourhoods. Beggars could sleep in peace all over the rest of the city. Still I am afraid I shall lose my night’s adventures to the bright streets.
I cannot wait for everyone to fall asleep. I resolve to watch all these dark strange nights before they disappear under the new lights. Outside the window, a quiet night is made darker by a moonless sky. Clouds nibble on stars. Two cats fight for a while, get caught in a deadlock, give up and part ways. A man dumps something in the gutter. He waits, watches whatever he has thrown drown in the quicksand of the city’s sewage. Then he walks away breaking into a whistle. It is so funny it takes me a while to hear the sound of footsteps approaching my window.
As the whistling man blends into the night, the footsteps hasten. I duck, just in time. The people of the night may be entertaining and excellent subjects for souvenirs, but it is best not to lock eyes with them. Crouched below the window, I wait for the footsteps to recede. Instead, they stop right outside the window. I push my back as much as I can against the wall, clutch my knees tight against my chest and hold my breath. Above me, the figure breathes, louder by the moment. I drag myself to the farthest corner of the kitchen. A voice barges in,
“I will find you!”
Without the shock that made it tremble in the afternoon, the kerosene man’s raspy voice makes him sound like a ghoul, seeking souls to quench its thirst. I am too scared to scream. A dog barks. Feet turn, scamper on the damp night soil. I wait long after, afraid he might return. I crawl to my bed, for my knees are too wobbly. I go to sleep covered in tears and sweat, whispering a dozen prayers at once.
I wake up again to the sound of sniffling. Gita is huddled in a corner, trying to mend a sari with a shivering hand. The kerosene lamp is at its dimmest. As I sit next to her, she whispers, “Don’t tell Ma.”
I can hear the tears in her voice, take the needle from her hand, examine the tear on the sari before her. It is the one she wore this evening, one of her favourites. A corner is ripped between wrinkles, but not irreparably.
“Someone in the crowd… I felt a hand and pulled… He ran when the light...” Gita picks her words with care between tears.
My heart drops to my stomach. If we are lucky Gita’s molester is a pervert, already stalking new prey. I examine the tear under the lamp. It is on the edge, where Gita ties the keys to our house. I remember her unlocking the door upon our return. I offer to mend the sari.
“Burn it,” she says and both of us know she does not mean it.
A crow caws. Dawn is on its way. There is no point in returning to our beds. Gita holds the lamp close so I can stitch faster and then both of us can begin the rest of our day. I ask her if she has been up all night.
“You crawl well,” she says, letting out a slight smile. “It was the kerosene man, wasn’t it?”
“Does Debi know?”
“No. She sleeps like a log these days.”
“From that side of the road, they may just assume it was a passing drunk.”
“What do we do? Should we tell our husbands? Ma?”
“No,” says Gita rising above murmurs, putting a finger to her lips to reiterate her point. “You were not even supposed to be at the window. Tomorrow, when the cursed picture is sold, he can go bother its new owners.”
I disagree, nodding hard. There is something in that painting that has made the kerosene man hound us. He will not go away just like that.
“It could have been him this evening, trying to steal your keys. Someone stepped...”
“On your husband’s toes. I know. And I know what happened to me was no accident,” Gita says. With her eyes, she warns me not to talk about the subject any further.
Gita returns the mended sari to an iron trunk where we keep our best clothes. I take the lamp outside and blow it so the smell of kerosene smoke does not linger in the house. Kerosene is expensive and our mother-in-law does not like us using the lamp unsupervised. By the time she wakes up, Gita and I have cooled down the lamp by sprinkling water on its glass cover and returned it to its place. She finds us tinkering in a dark kitchen, chopping vegetables to the beat of our rising neighbourhood.
When it is time to assign the tasks for the day, she hands me another large wooden sheet. Pulling out the picture with the bride, smiling at her own genius, she says, “Make one with a groom today. We will sell them as a set.”
Dark clouds converge and cover the sky. It begins to drizzle as we get the last bowls of paint into the house. It is dark enough to force our mother-in-law to light the kerosene lamp. In its flame I catch Gita’s eyes darting to the door every now and then, just like mine. Because of the rain, our children are locked in the house with us, too. Our mother-in-law keeps them from disturbing us with stories. I prefer to use this as my last memory of her. Just like I store my husband’s face under the street lamp deep in memories. Gita and Debi are there too, laughing, their heads bent together in continued gossip.
I watch Gita squeeze her eyes in prayer when there is an urgent knock on the door. I hear our mother-in-law open it to a voice, rasping, pleading. He claims he has sprained his ankle. His legs and dhoti, covered in mud, support this. He shrieks in pain with every step that brings him closer to us. He eyes the room, sits on the mattress next to me. Yesterday he was a vendor who could be easily dismissed. Today he is a guest, and following the rules of hospitality my mother-in-law lets him have his way.
As he sits, groaning, Gita springs into action. She orders Debi to take the children and rally the neighbours for help. My son cannot walk yet so I thrust him in the hands of Debi’s six-year-old. Our mother-in-law ignores Debi’s protests as she questions the kerosene man about the extent of his injuries. The kerosene man tries to talk to Gita, claims there is no need for help. Gita refuses to turn and look at him. When Debi and the children finally leave, she walks into the kitchen.
“Make sure it is scalding,” says our mother-in-law, assuming she has gone to heat water to wash the kerosene man’s feet.
Having grown up with angry, unhinged people, I can recognize madness from afar. I know that I need to stop Gita. But she is beyond reason now. As I am getting out of her way, I drop the two pictures, the bride’s procession and the train of a half-sketched groom’s party. The kerosene man bursts into laughter, and says, “I never saw you. Clever girl.”
Sensing trouble, my mother-in-law says, “The neighbours are on their way.”
“So? What have I done?” His arrogance makes him numb to everything around him. He never hears Gita approach and take her place behind him, never feels the steam from the vessel of hot water she raises above his head. He screams, rolls on the floor trying to stop the hot water from burning his face. But Gita is not done yet. She crouches on her knees and presses the vessel on the fingers covering his face. When he gasps for air, I realize I have to pull Gita away.
That is how the neighbours find us. Gita crouched over the kerosene man, squashing his life out of him, me thrown to a corner, our mother-in-law cowering at the scene. They scream and gasp. I hear Debi stop the children from walking in, sparing them this sight.
“Murderers,” shouts the kerosene man, with all his strength.
“Thief, thief,” shouts our mother-in-law, her broken wings shielding her
The babel of our neighbours draws more people to our house. Inside, the kerosene man’s groans rise and ebb, then dwindle into silence. The street seeps into our house, craning necks spouting opinions, accusations and advice. A puzzled Debi makes frustrated efforts to extract answers from us. My mother-in-law is busy keeping Gita quiet. I stare at the kerosene man, searching for signs of life.
When I return to the house in memory, I wonder if I should have shown some courage and remained where I stood. It was my picture that had brought the kerosene man into our house. I had planted the idea that the kerosene man was her molester in Gita’s head. I had not even tried to stop her from pouring the hot water. I should have stood by her, faced the consequences with her. What was the worst that could have happened? We would have been scarred, but we would have endured together. It was the right thing to do.
But bravery and righteousness are luxuries that only people in fairy tales can afford. The only lesson life has taught me well is to run from every sign of trouble. When I see two men in the Ingrej police’s uniform I panic. They raise a gun as they part the crowd; forced to shuffle and make space, they grow even more excited. There is so little space that as I wade through them no one notices how close I am to the door. Moments before the policemen step inside the house, I tumble outside. Rain and pandemonium blend me into the much larger crowd. Head bowed and covered with my sari, I walk backwards until I reach the last rows of the gathered crowd. Then I turn around and run.
I use my head start to reach the path that I had looked upon for so many nights. I let it take me through narrow alleys, guide me through lanes sinking in the rain. Although I look behind often, no one stops me or shouts my name. I do not know if I am well hidden or if no one has attempted to come look for me. When it stops raining, I find myself at the square from the night before. The bamboo barricades are gone. The street lamp stands unlit. There are people staring and pointing at it.
A few brave souls venture nervous touches. Behind the pole lies the corpse of a tree, chopped by the Ingrej to make way for their new toy.
A group of men and women dressed in crimson clothes and jasmine garlands surround the trunk like flies on fruit. They sing together, hands raised, eyes closed, transported to oblivion. Drawn, I begin to approach them. My steps are so slow, and when their song ends, I am still not close enough to draw their attention. They begin to chat and laugh. One woman breaks into dance. I notice that all around the square, hundreds of people pass them by. Yet they capture no one’s attention. As I draw closer, I notice a woman reclining on the ground. She turns at the same moment and our eyes meet. The bride from my painting rises, claps and says, “We have been waiting for you.”
She gives me her hand. The figures from my painting turn to face me and break into warm welcoming smiles. I begin to talk about the kerosene man and the Ingrej police. They reassure me that it is not my fault. Sometimes overlaps occur, confusing people from our pasts, making them believe we will return. The women help me into my crimsons and jasmines. They compliment me over the ease and grace with which I accept my invisibility. At night, when the stars open up their narrow tunnels, my forever family and I set out for my first real adventure.
Ranjabali Chaudhuri’s work has appeared in The Dime Show Review and Black Bough Poetry. She grew up in India and now lives in London.
© 2019 Ranjabali Chaudhuri