Like a despondent autumn leaf, Barna’s feet carried her forward. Her body moved, while her mind sank deeper into the puddle of anxiety. She clutched the small cloth purse with both her hands and paced along the sidelines of the deserted road.
Her feet hit the curb, making her lose her footing and the slipper slid off her right foot. She wobbled and eventually hit the road.
The skin of her left elbow had crumpled into a wrinkly mass and hung like a saturated rain drop. Looking at the lump of her skin, she quickly gathered her saree, picked up her slipper and still clutching her purse tightly, walked off the road.
She didn’t look at her elbow but could feel the stinging sensation and the stickiness of the blood on her skin. After walking for half an hour, she vanished into the unending labyrinth of narrow paths; laden with sewage waste and the garbage of the overflowing bins and half-naked toddlers playing in the dirt while their mothers eyed them indifferently, before stopping in front a rusty-brown painted tin shed.
Surrounded by empty drums and plastic canisters for storing water, was a narrow iron ladder with one side of the rails missing. She climbed up ten steep steps and pushed another tin sheet inwards, which was the door, hooked in with a couple of wires to her home. Her small square piece of a dwelling.
She stepped inside and sat down; the room was too small for her to stand upright. On the wooden floor, over a thin plastic mat, slept her husband and her two-year-old daughter. She looked at them and closed her eyes, her head resting on the cool asbestos sheet which acted as the wall.
The coolness didn’t soothe her. She opened her eyes after some time and emptied her purse. Two crumpled notes of five hundred each looked back at her dolefully. She looked at her husband. He was still fast asleep, his snores light but audible. She picked up one of the notes and tucked it inside her blouse. She crawled to the corner opposite to the entrance of the room and moved the lid from over the saucepan. It still had a handful of cooked rice resting at its bottom.
Barna turned back to find her daughter stirring. She was about to turn two but looked like a six-month-old. Too small, too fragile. Her whole body shook with each breath. Barna picked up a small mug, half-filled with water and splashed it on her face, took a deep breath and turned to shake her husband awake.
‘What happened?’ Her husband mumbled, covering his eyes with his hairy forearm.
‘They didn’t give the full money.’ Barna picked up her daughter and put her in her lap.
‘What do you mean?’ Her husband opened his eyes and gave Barna a confused and irritated look. He then moved slowly and sat up, cross legged. She looked at his red eyes and smelled alcohol on his breath.
‘Couple of them said I am not working at their house at the moment and since the lockdown could continue, they can’t pay the advance. At other places, I was not even allowed to enter the building.’ She rocked her daughter gently, hoping that she would continue to sleep. A sleeping child ate less.
‘How much did you get?’ He yawned, exposing his stained teeth. She stared at him. He was older than her; he didn’t know how old, but she remembered the time when she was married to him in their village. He had just got a job in the city and her mother was eager to get rid of her. He didn’t drink back then, but now in the city, he was someone else.
She slowed her rocking as Tusu’s eyes closed, and showed him the purse with the folded five hundred rupee note.
‘Just this?’ He looked at her in anger. She kept quiet. He grumbled and stretched his hand towards the mug and drank the remaining water. Buttoning his shirt, he grabbed the five hundred rupee note from her bag and stepped down the ladder.
Barna sat at the last stair and waited for something to happen. An hour later she saw her husband hurrying towards her. To her surprise, he was not drunk.
‘Where were you the whole night?’ Barna spoke stiffly as little Tusu started crying in her arms.
‘Baru, I met my friends and sorted out everything. Listen…’ He looked around and saw two of their neighbours listening intently.
‘Did you spend all the money?’ She cut him short.
‘Come up.’ He walked up the ladder to their room. She followed him after wiping the tears off her daughter’s cheeks.
‘I will get money. There is this job. They need drivers who can transport vegetables in the lockdown. I have to make six trips and then we can go back.’ He kept his arm on her shoulder and whispered.
‘Back? To Barhaniya? How? There are no trains.’ The thought of her village, her home, freed her from her worries for a moment. She remembered the moist morning air of the Subarnarekha river, after which she was named. She could smell the blooming of the sweet mahua flowers.
‘The goods trains are running. I have found a way. We can get inside one of them in about a week. We will come back when everything is alright.’ He smiled.
‘What about the rent?’ Her mind started working again.
‘It is just a matter of ten days. We will find some way. Don’t worry.’ He moved towards the mat and lied down.
‘I need to buy food. Give me money.’ She placed their daughter next to him.
His fingers went inside the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a hundred rupee note.
‘What did you do with the rest?’ She asked him furiously.
‘I will get it back. Now go.’ He closed his eyes.
Barna spent the whole evening sitting as usual, at the foot of the ladder, waiting for her husband to come back. He returned at around midnight.
Sidho climbed the ladder and sat at the entrance of the room. He looked exhausted and pulled out a bidi and lit it with a match.
‘Bhau came. He has given us time till tomorrow for the rent. How much did you get today?’ She looked up.
‘One fifty. How much do we have to pay Bhau?’ He exhaled the smoke in the night sky.
‘Eight hundred. And six hundred for this month. So around fourteen hundred.’ She felt despair clouding her up again.
‘How much have we saved?’ He threw the half-burnt bidi down on the street.
‘Two hundred.’ She felt her fingers inevitably touching her blouse and tracing the hidden currency note.
‘So, we give him two hundred and ask him for a few more days.’ He moved inside the room.
Barna looked around. The heat was oppressing even at night. There was no breeze. The whole street was quiet, except for a dog, which kept whining and licking the wound on his back leg.
‘Two hundred?’ Bhau asked, chewing on his toothbrush, as the white foam of the paste hung around the corner of his dark lips. He was a stout man, with a shrill voice.
‘Yes.’ Sidho nodded.
‘Show me.’ Sidho looked at Barna who handed him the money.
‘You owe me another twelve hundred,’ He spat the foam out and tightened the towel around his waist, ‘By today evening, you will empty the kholi. If you don’t, my men will kick you out. I don’t trust you people. So don’t even think about hiding or running away to whatever forsaken adivaasi village you came from. I will find you. Once you have paid everything you can come back.’ He looked at his brush and shook it hard.
‘Bhau, it is all locked down. Where will we go? We will pay you slowly. It is a difficult time for all of us.’ Barna pleaded.
‘That is not my concern. You should have told your man to not spend all the money on booze and women. Now get going.’ Bhau smirked at Sidho and left.
Barna turned towards Sidho.
‘If you had to chase women and drink all the time, why did you drag me here with you? Do you even think about Tusu? Have you seen her? She is so weak, she needs food. And we need this room. But you…you just…do whatever you want to do.’ She stomped up the ladder and shut the tin door behind her.
Sidho found the eyes of half a dozen neighbours on him. Judging him, mocking him, shaking their heads in disappointment. He searched his pockets and found a bidi. He took out the matchbox, but it was empty.
After a couple of hours Barna peeked outside and found that Sidho was gone and everyone else had vanished into their homes as well. She packed up their meagre belongings into a bundle, wrapped it around a sheet, tied Tusu on her back with a back wrap made of one of her two sarees and stepped down and walked away.
The midday sun was harsh, and the curfewed streets looked desolate. Shops were all closed and Barna felt as if the city was dead. She ensured that she kept away from police checkpoints, and took long detours, navigating her way through. Her elbow itched as the scratched skin started drying up.
She stopped in front of a house on the ground floor of the chawl and knocked. Binni opened the door after a minute .
‘I need your help.’ Barna looked at Binni with desperation.
Binni looked inside her house, stepped out and closed the door behind her quietly. ‘What is the matter?’
‘We have to vacate our room today. There is no money to pay the rent. I don’t know where to go, so I came to you.’ She dropped the bundle on the muddy floor, untied Tusu and sat next to Binni’s door, taking the support of the wall. Binni sat down next to her.
‘Where is Sidho?’ She took Tusu from Barna’s hands and held her, resting her face against her shoulder.
‘I don’t know. He said he found some work to drive a tempo. He will take at least ten days to get the money. He said we could go back to our village in a goods train or something. And I have barely enough food for Tusu.’ Barna’s eyes welled up.
‘There is an old municipality building in Bhavani Nagar. I think I might have something. You can come with me. I am sure you will find some work there. They are stingy people, but you can still make some money. Right now, everyone needs maids more than ever.’ Binni’s words felt soothing.
‘What about this lockdown? Can we go?’ Barna asked.
‘Just wrap a cloth around your nose and mouth, and if someone asks anything, just say that you are going to get medicine for the little one. That is what I do. Time to use these babies.’ Binni smiled just as Binni’s son started crying inside. And soon enough, the voice of Binni’s husband came through, summoning her.
‘Can you do me one more favour? Just let me sleep here. I won’t ask for food or anything. If I make money I will also pay, but just let me sleep here. Or at least keep Tusu with you at night.’ Helplessness crawled back in Barna’s voice.
Binni patted Barna’s palms and placed Tusu back on her lap, ‘Have you eaten anything?’ Binni asked as she got up.
Barna shook her head.
‘I have heard that they are running a train to send us home next week. From Bandra station. By that time, we will have the money to buy the tickets.’ Sidho spoke cautiously as Barna avoided looking at him. He had come knocking at Binni’s door late at night.
‘I am staying at Gajju’s house. Bhau won’t find me there. Just be patient for a week. I will sort everything out.’ He continued, even as Barna ignored him.
‘How is Tusu?’ He asked.
‘Sleeping.’ She replied curtly. He nodded and left.
Over the next four days, Barna felt a sensation close to hope, germinating inside her. Tusu, for a change, was getting two meals a day. Her husband came every night, sober, and handed her half the money he earned. She had managed to find work in the housing society where Binni took her and the savings were now adding up.
Late in the afternoon on the fifth day, Barna was washing the utensils in the house of an old couple and Binni was working on the fourth floor; when suddenly a lot of activity came about in the society. A police van and an ambulance entered the compound, blaring their respective sirens.
Barna looked out of the kitchen window, trying to make sense of all the chaos. She continued washing the dishes when there was an urgent knock on the door. Barna wiped her hands and opened it. There were two uniformed men, wearing masks and gloves and another man, dressed from head to toe in some kind of white overalls, holding a plastic stamp and a small box.
‘Mr. Naik?’ One of the police officers asked Barna, who signalled him to wait and hurried to the bedroom of the couple.
The old man emerged, slowly, coughing, holding his dear walking stick.
‘Sir, a courier delivery executive who had delivered a parcel to you three days ago has tested positive. As a precautionary measure, we are sealing the building and all the residents must stay under self-quarantine for two weeks. How many people are there in the house?’ The masked officer asked, moving a couple of steps back, as the man in the protective gear pulled the old man’s hand and stamped the back of his palm.
‘My wife and me.’ The old man looked shaken.
‘And her?’ The officer pointed towards Barna.
‘Oh, she is the maid.’ The old man turned back to see his wife, a short woman with extremely grey hair standing expressionless behind him.
‘There is no reason to panic. The three of you need to be home quarantined for ten to fourteen days, just for safety. Everyone in the building is being tested. We will take your cheek swabs and get back with the results. There is nothing to worry about.’ The man in the gear moved towards Barna and stamped her hand, and then did the same to the old lady. He then opened the box and pulled out three cotton swab sticks and collected their samples.
‘Please do not step out. And call the helpline numbers in case you feel sick, or if there is a health emergency of any kind.’ The other officer handed the old man a leaflet and the three of them left, closing the door behind them.
Barna looked at the old couple cluelessly. The couple stared at each other dazed. She waited for a few minutes before clearing her throat to remind them she was still there.
‘What does this mean?’ She pointed towards her stamped hand.
‘You can’t leave. None of us can. For fourteen days you will have to stay here.’ The old man collapsed on the sofa.
‘I can go to my…house.’ Barna couldn’t understand the implication of the stamp.
‘They won’t let you. There will be policemen outside the building.’ The old man said, breathing heavily.
Barna stood still, unable to make anything of all this when Tusu started crying. She went back inside the kitchen and sat down on the floor. She made Tusu lie down in her lap and started humming softly in Mundari, her native language.
‘Close your eyes little one,
For the crows will come,
And peck at the whites of your eyes,
Thinking that they are steamed rice.
Close your eyes little one…’
Tusu sucked on her thumb and looked at her mother before her eyes closed.
Barna’s days became one in an unending loop. She would sleep in the old couple’s kitchen, use the common washroom on the ground floor meant for outsiders, clean the house all day, cook, eat, sleep and watch television with the couple. Tusu on her part was content at being regularly fed. Barna would meet Binni every morning when she went down to clean herself up.
She spent hours at the kitchen window, thinking about her family, her village and to a much lesser extent about her husband. She remembered picking up the mahua flowers every morning with her mother and sister in the village. The burning red flowers of palash and the festivities of sarhul. She wanted to run away and see her village and breathe that free air one more time, away from this urban mess of constant struggle and fight for survival, where nothing was ever enough for anyone.
A week later, the test results came and none of them tested positive. That evening Binni knocked on the couple’s door and pulled Barna out.
‘We are leaving tonight.’ She whispered.
‘How? There are police outside.’ Barna suddenly felt that her current state of existence was the most peaceful one, ever since her marriage three years ago.
‘Yes, but at night there are only two of them and they sleep a lot. We can sneak out.’ Binni sounded excited.
‘What if they catch us?’ Barna wasn’t so sure about the plan.
‘Then they will send us back. But they won’t catch us. Trust me. And if they do, we can always give them a couple of hundred rupees and then they would let us go happily,’ Binni shrugged her shoulders, ‘Stay awake, I will knock once when it is time. You can tell your madam if you want to or not, it won’t matter. No one wants a servant around them all the time.’
A little after midnight, Binni knocked and the two of them walked towards the entrance with the kids. As Binni had said, the policemen were sleeping. The gates were chained. Binni handed Barna her child and squeezed out from the narrow gap. The chains clinked, but did not disturb the sleeping policemen.
Barna passed the children one after another to Binni and then squeezed herself out. She was nervous and her bangles hit the gates. The glass shattered immediately and Barna froze for a second. Binni pulled her out and handed Tusu over before the two of them broke into a run.
Breathless, they reached Binni’s chawl. Sidho was sleeping outside her house. Binni knocked on her door. Her younger son opened it and upon seeing her mother after a week, clung to her.
Barna looked at her husband. His face was swollen and there were several cuts across his lips. She woke him up.
‘Baru, you are back. Binni’s husband told me that you were locked down.’ He mumbled in half sleep.
‘What happened to you?’ Barna looked at him in concern.
‘Bhau’s men found me at Gajju’s house. I escaped somehow. They took everything I had saved while you were gone.’ Sidho’s eyes stayed closed.
‘You need someone to take care of the bruises. Is it too painful?’ Her fingers cautiously touched the bruised cheeks of her husband.
‘It is better. I have things to tell you.’ He opened his eyes slowly. His right eye was too swollen, and it hardly opened.
‘The trains are starting to take us back. From day after. I found us a place near Bandra. It is not much, but we just need to spend a few nights there. I have to drive the van a couple of times more and the pay is good. I will be able to buy tickets for us after that.’ His words were slurred, coming out from his cracked and swollen lips. He took support of the wall and asked for Tusu. Barna gave him the child.
‘She looks better.’ Sidho spoke softly.
‘Yes.’ Barna smiled weakly.
The sky was bluish black, when Sidho stopped under a bridge. Barna looked around, not sure what to expect.
‘This is just for two or three nights.’ Sidho led her and Tusu under the bridge where there were a dozen auto-rickshaws parked and the rest of the place was occupied by a few other people, homeless surely, and dogs.
Sidho read the number plates of the autos and found the one he was looking for.
‘This one belongs to the guy who got me the job. He said we can sleep in it. At night you two can sleep here and I can in the day. The station is five minutes from here. And for food I have a little money left, we can manage with that. Once I get paid, I will get the tickets and soon we will be on our way back. Safe.’ Sidho’s words had a forced layer of earnestness in them.
Barna nodded quietly.
Sweating, Barna impatiently waited for Sidho to come back. He had said that the train would leave at two in the afternoon. Tusu was crying, and in just three days, she seemed to have shrivelled again.
As the sun shone brighter and harsher, Barna got up with Tusu and walked towards the address Sidho had given her. It was of the man for whom he was driving the vans. There was no luggage anymore, everything was sold off.
Completely drenched in sweat, she reached the address after walking for fifteen minutes.
‘I am Sidho’s wife.’ She told the tall man who opened the door.
‘I have no money to give you.’ He answered roughly.
‘I am not here for money. Where is he?’ She asked.
‘That bastard! Police caught him. He tried to sell my liquor on his own. He is in jail somewhere. I don’t know.’ He looked at her angrily as if it was all her fault.
‘Can you tell me the time?’ Her face stayed passive.
‘Huh…’ The man looked at her and then at his watch, ‘Eleven thirty.’
Barna turned back and started walking away. She took out the single crumpled and moist five hundred rupee note from inside her blouse and clutched it tightly.
She was left with twenty rupees after buying the tickets, two bottles of water and three packets of glucose biscuits. She settled down at a window seat in a compartment which was overcrowded and stank of sweat and unwashed bodies all around her. It got noisier as the other travelers, mostly all migrants, kept filtering in, anxious and fearful about their fate. They fought over the limited seats and the ones who lost, ended up sitting on the floor of the train.
After a delay of over two hours, the train finally moved. Barna took a deep breath and let the motion of the train lull her and Tusu to sleep.
The long journey seemed longer, with random halts and unexplained delays. By the second morning, a hushed murmur filled the compartment. Those who knew the route claimed that they were heading elsewhere. Barna heard them and looked outside. Bushes and trees and barren fields flew past her window. She closed her eyes and tried imagining her home. But no image formed behind the darkness of her eyelids. An apprehensive nervousness clouded her heart. The home she had been craving for suddenly disappeared from her consciousness, leaving behind a cold and foggy uncertainty.
In panic, she opened her eyes and looked at the people around her. Most were from her region. Many were from her community, not surprisingly. But she didn’t talk to anyone. She heard her language being spoken, but she felt a distance between herself and the others.
By the time the train finally stopped, it was almost noon and the passengers were shouting angrily. Instead of Tatanagar in Jharkhand, the train had reached Balasore in Orissa.
The passengers got off the train and rushed towards the railway office. A bunch of them headed towards the driver’s compartment. Everyone was shouting, everyone was confused.
Barna was the last one to get off the train. She looked at the board with the name of the station. The letters made no sense to her. Wherever she was, it was clear that it was not her home. She looked around and found three men arguing with a man wearing a black coat. She stepped closer towards them.
The man in the coat was a railway officer and through the angry abusive interjections he informed that Railway was trying to organise another train, though when would that happen was not certain.
She filled the empty water bottle from a tap and resting Tusu on her shoulder, sat down in a corner of the platform. Her eyes stayed on the train she had just disembarked from. Her mind wandered. From village to the city, to what end? For money, which had failed to buy her the feeling of being home?
‘Are you coming?’ Barna blinked and looked up on her right and found a bulky man staring at her and Tusu.
‘Where?’ Barna asked.
‘Some of the passengers are hiring a van. I am the driver. We are going to Mednipore, Bengal.’ The man looked around, searching for more potential passengers.
‘Barhaniya, near Ghatshila.’ Barna stared at the sweating man.
‘I can leave you near Dantan at most. You have money?’ The man was now rotating the key chain in his index finger as a family of four caught his attention.
‘How much?’ She asked, whispering, aware that her twenty rupees were hardly going to be hardly.
‘Mednipore, five hundred, till Dantan, you give two hundred.’ The driver had now turned towards the other family as they stepped outside the station.
‘I have twenty.’ She untied the knot at the loose end of her saree and pulled out the last twenty rupee note. The driver looked at her and the sleeping Tusu for a long moment, laughed, and rushed after the family.
The platform soon emptied. Most of the passengers had stepped out in search of some other means of transportation. A few groups stayed back, huddled together, hoping, and waiting for the next train.
Barna stayed seated, staring vacantly in the void when Tusu started crying. She tried feeding her daughter a biscuit, but the child vomited. Barna washed Tusu’s mouth and headed to the station office.
‘Is there a doctor nearby?’ She asked the man behind the barred windows. Tusu kept groaning and crying.
‘Chandipur. Go straight. It is around ten kilometres from here.’ The officer looked at her briefly and got back to his papers.
She stepped outside the station, asked for directions, and started walking. Tusu’s cries started getting inaudible as their shadows elongated. By the time they reached the Chandipur, the sun had slipped below the horizon.
The small town was empty. Barna found an old man with three dogs sitting outside a small closed shop who told her that everyone had left as a storm was approaching. When she insisted, the man gave her the directions to the doctor’s house.
Holding Tusu close to herself, Barna hurried towards the address. All the houses were locked. She sat outside the locked house of the doctor for a while, singing softly to Tusu.
When the shadows merged in the darkness she got up. She was afraid to check the heartbeats of her silent daughter as she tied her gently on her back and started walking aimlessly. Soon, she heard the waves of the ocean.
Her mind was thoughtless, and her numb feet stopped feeling the pain. The straps of her worn out slippers gave away and she took them off and left them on the sand. As the night grew darker, her feet became wet and stung with the salt of the rising sea. She walked away from the ocean and slept on the sand, holding Tusu close to her, who never moved.
She woke up the next morning by sunrise and resumed walking. The day was hotter than usual, and the winds were stronger. By nightfall, clouds had gathered. The waves in the ocean were angry. The almost full moon would appear momentarily before vanishing behind the dark clouds. Barna could hear the growling rumble of the thunder and the flashes of lightning deep in the belly of the clouds.
She stopped walking and sat down on the beach. The waves would race towards her and kiss her swollen and bloody feet, and then move back. She finished the remaining biscuits and water and lied down on the beach with Tusu resting over her breasts, who felt lighter than a feather. She held her tight and close and looked at the sky above her. The wind started hurting her skin. The thunders were now longer and louder and closer.
The rain on her face felt the same as it did when she lived in her village. She heard the bells tied to the cattle walking on the narrow mud paths along the fields. She felt the cool soothing water of the river. She smelled the fish curry her mother used to make. The steamed rice that always looked like the whites of the eye of a new-born baby.
She closed her eyes as a strong wave completely drenched her. The skies opened up and rain drops hit her skin with force.
Where was her home, she wondered. Was it her village or was it in the whites of the mahua flowers? Or was it just an imaginary place she believed in, where she could belong?
Sweet rain drops mixed with the salty ocean water entered her mouth and she closed her eyes.
Where was her home?
She didn’t know.
1. Barhaniya: A small village near the river Subarnarekha, in the extreme south eastern part of the state of Jharkhand, near the border of the states of Orissa and West Bengal.
2. Subarnarekha: An Indian river, which flows through the Indian states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Odisha. Traditionally, gold was mined near the origin of the river and thus, it got its name, which means streak of gold.
3. Mahua: A tropical Indian tree, known for its small, white, sweet smelling flowers which are edible and used to prepare local alcohol and for medicinal purposes. The flowers bloom in the months of March and April.
4. Bidi – Small hand-rolled cigarettes made of tobacco and wrapped in tendu or temburni leaves.
5. Kholi: A very small room, with hardly any facilities.
6. Adivaasi: It is the collective term often used to refer to the tribes and indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent. At times it is used as a derogatory slang, to refer to a person as backward, dull, and primitive
7. Chawl: Usually a large building divided into many separate tenements, offering cheap, basic accommodation to poor but gainfully employed labourers and migrant families. Common in the western part of India, especially in the city of Mumbai.
8. Mundari: It is a Munda language of the Austroasiatic language family spoken by the Munda people in eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, Odisha, and West Bengal.
9. Palash: A dry-season deciduous tree, with bright red flowers, blooming in the months of March and April. It is also the state flower of Jharkhand.
10. Sarhul: A colourful spring festival, which marks the beginning of Santhali new year.Kanishq Banka, 30, is a Mumbai based writer and traveller. He has finished his double master’s degree in Sociology and Journalism & Mass Communications. He has published three novels (The Inferno-A Thought Fire, The Black Barrier and Let’s Get Married) and stories in The Bombay Review (Mahua) and in the two anthologies by Dastaan and White Falcon Publishing.(Lierati 2018 and 2019). He is also the co-writer of the story of the movie ‘Namdeo Bhau- In Search of Silence’, produced by Jugaad Motion pictures and directed by Daria Gai from Ukraine. He is presently working on a couple of scripts and on his next novel about a poet from Kashmir.