Fiction | ‘The Train and the Tunnel’ by Dhananjay Singh

for Navneet Sethi

My father lowered his neck, dipped his shoulders, and emerged out of the tin door, a foot lower than his height of five feet two inches. A broad and muscular chest straightening itself on a sturdy waist stepped out to the parched yard.  

Sweat beads dribbled down my cleavage, making a half-circle around my navel, before slithering downwards, cooling my pubic place.

His fifty-year-old wheatish face was dry and stretched tightly between the temple and the jawbone. Years of bitterness had given the oblong face a rough surface. No warm emotion either for his wife, his daughter or his mother ever brightened it for the better. 

The brittle hot soil broke under his dusty feet. He bowed to the Seven Wise Men, who willfully took no notice of him and his bowing. The dust gatherers, the villagers, waited for the verdict anxiously. With their inconspicuous murmuring, the Seven Wise Men played on the impatient nerves of the crowd like a team of shamans. 

The matter was severe. Had they come to dispense their sense of justice for the regular, routine and often illogical issues, the situation would have been different, and loud. Thundering shots from the Wise Men’s mouths interspersed with bombastic farts released through the bulging asses would have withered down whatever strength was left in the half squatting, half-standing villagers. 

The Seven Wise Men sat in a semicircle under an old mango tree, having grown giant with time. Its sprawling branches sagged under the scalding sun as if to eavesdrop on these proceedings.  

***

Under the same Mango Tree, thirteen years ago. 

The Seven Wise Men summoned my mother. 

The scandal had been reported a week before. 

She was sleeping face-up. My father held a bulky pumpkin over her stomach. It dropped quietly, on her navel area. I squirmed in her womb.  

She flinched while coming out of the shack; but her right hand was a hand of conviction. It rose angrily against the sky, and at the same time, her left hand caressed her painful stomach.    

“The child isn’t his, so!”    

The Seven Wise Men were astounded.  

 Hands and legs tied, to be thrown into the river!

All rose abruptly drawing a cloud of dust under their hips.   

Though the verdict was as expected, my grandmother broke off from other women who were sitting inside their shanties, sad and helpless. She ran through the men like a thunderstorm tearing apart a gathering of gloomy clouds. Roaring like an old tigress, she ground her teeth in anger and leaped around in the yard. She waved sideways, left and right in the air, the sickle in her left hand like Imli, the tribal goddess of destruction, while repeatedly slapping her right palm on her raised right thigh as a mark of challenge to the men. 

The Seven Wise Men wisely settled for an alternative.  

Alright, if it’s a girl, she lives! 

***

Early in the morning, today                        

Mother pulled me up by my hair. I sat motionless in the bed with my legs stretched. A sunbeam slid through a chink in the roof, fell at the corner of my neck, and diagonally connected my left breast to my right toe. Under the red frock, tiny, blood dots appeared between my inner thighs. She saw them, paused briefly and went out hurriedly. I resumed breathing. 

I was a rabbit afraid to come out of my hole for the fear of being hunted down by the preying eyes.  

Grandmother was the strongest woman in the village, bigger than any man, bigger even than the village chief. Her breasts hung like two gourds on her broad tummy. She rushed in and coiled her arms around me. 

“You are going to be fine, my child!”

She kissed my cheeks. 

If that wasn’t enough, she pulled me closer to her fat and round body. Her face caressed mine. I felt as if her wrinkles were my own.    

She sang.  

Oh, rose-like lips 

Beware of the sting of your lover’s teeth.

She giggled. 

I thought of the carpenter’s son. That tall and dark boy, with whom I daydreamed about running away to a wonderland on a black horse along secret, cobblestoned streets, that began and ended in my heart. He lived only a few shanties away, but we rarely met openly. A year older than me, he had started talking like a worldly-wise man lately. We lived on the edge of the village. Our shanties were quite shabby, like most in the area, unlike the colorful brick houses in the central parts of the village. His sweet purple lips were of the real world though. He had kissed me eleven times since the night of the village fair a year before.

***

Under the Mango tree, now again.

A mango dropped. A thud on the dusty ground. Ripe yellow juice oozed out onto the dust like a breath.

The Seven Wise Men addressed my father, who stood obsequiously bent, while the audience squatted down under the tree in three arched rows.

“What a great prospect for a good-for-nothing man like you!” The leader of the Seven Wise Men, the chief said.  

“And he is an old bridegroom!”  

It was my uncle this time, who spoke patronizingly. However, he immediately conjured an indifferent, official frown on his face, one befitting that of a trusted assistant to the Seven Wise Men.  

An ‘unreal’ husband, who if he also happened to be old, paid twice the fixed rate for a virgin wife. 

The scalding rays of the sun dug mirages out of the dense crops across the railway line, seemingly cutting the panorama of maize fields into two halves. Mother put my bloodied frock that she had cut out of her old sari into an old, half-broken clay pot. 

She went down the grassy path that vanished into the pond beyond the mango tree, to offer the pot to water and earth gods. Its placid surface swayed in the breeze as the pot sank into the water. Its ripples were deep green from the reflection of the dense bamboo, with coconut and banana trees all around it.  

Grandmother emerged from the grove with a bucket of pond water mixed with coconut water and a sackful of cracked shells containing the fleshy white fruit inside them.  

“Here, drink some before I give you a sweet sacred shower of the coconut water. And then you can go and give the shells to your father. The shells keep the water pure, goes the old saying.”

Women from the shanties flocked at our home with more coconut, some honey and a lot of wheat flour as wedding gifts. They went around in the evening giving sweet balls at the door of each shanty, singing and seeking consent from the men. 

Grandmother was the lead singer. Mother matched her note upon note, with great precision. The other women sang as a chorus. They sang about my sharp nose, my dark eyes and my long flowing hair. My name in the song gave me goosebumps. It resonated from the hedges, the branches of the mango tree, and the grove that surrounded the pond. My blood, swimming in the pond, was rolling on the tongues of earth and water gods.         

Father’s sister, my aunt, who was now a ‘really’ married woman, arrived by a rickshaw. She scurried into the group, singing passionately, stretching out her dark neck like a nightingale.  

“Rein in your heart, till you get a ‘real’ husband,” said my aunt. 

 “You are too young now for that,” said my mother behind her. 

 “And when does one become a ‘really’ married girl?”

I was thinking of him, whose purple lips had made my heart dance rhythmically.

“When a man from the community marries you, for life!” My mother was sterner this time. My aunt winked at me. Mother was not letting her speak and Aunt was eager to give her piece of advice.

“And when rich men from the city or beyond the seas marry you for their fixed time, you are not ‘really’ married,” my aunt said smiling, and hugged me again.  

“Your aunt came through fifteen ‘unreal’ husbands, without the Seven Wise Men ever coming to us and knocking at our door!” said my mother, both to praise my aunt and give herself some credit as well. 

  My aunt nodded, proudly this time. She took my hand, and we strolled towards the pond.

“Not an ordinary man, this one. He owns three factories in the city.”

  “Why does the chief so welcome these husbands?” I asked out of curiosity. 

“Because he gets his cut. And this man? He is a celebrity in the village, because he has promised to take some of our boys to work in his factories in the city, where they eat all three times a day.”

“But listen here, child. Don’t you ever let a swollen belly come on you. That is the most disgraceful thing that can happen with an ‘unreal’ husband! Remember, how Reshma was thrown into the river, because she let her belly swell? How stupid of that poor girl!”

“Yes, I remember this as clear as day; her swollen body stuck in the bushes under the bridge. It was her mother who later pushed it away again.” I said, looking towards the Chief’s mansion beyond which the river curved away from the village. 

“How beautiful were those days! The three of us roamed on dusty roads, and climbed on mango trees until the day she became a woman and was married off to that rich man across the seas.” She remembered, and her eyes moistened. 

“She was sent back by an aeroplane six months before the contract period ended because she let herself become pregnant.”

“And then only after she arrived, did the Seven Wise Men convened to settle the matter,” I reported to her.

A voice whispered my name behind the banana grove, a sweet, almost musical tune kissed my inner ears and my heart started racing. 

My aunt understood, and retired to the shanty.   

“Run away with me!” His voice sounded hurried. It meant we had to decide either way, urgently. They called him the carpenter’s son, the powerful people. I never called him anything, but he meant the world to me.  

“You want to go away from the village, with me? Come to the city for an amazing life! Come to me, where I live a royal life in a rented tunnel?”

“In a tunnel? A rented tunnel!” I quipped, with half disbelief. 

“Yeah! A tunnel of freedom, in the outskirts of the city, out of use, discarded by the corporation, but I am sure the police would let us rent it, and we will have a beautiful, undisturbed good time together. Not one Wise Man to intrude into our lives. We would lie in the curves of our arms, look at the stars, and marvel at the brightly-lit tall buildings of the world kissing the Moon. We will kiss our lips without fear. Come with me?”  

We chirped inside a cozy nest of soft monosyllables. He kissed me. I kissed him. He was fast. I was slow. We parted with quiet cravings.  

The sun had dropped behind the chief’s mansion on the bank of the river. We were not supposed to be anywhere there, none of us, not even the older people, except during an ‘unreal’ wedding. 

Somewhere inside there was my first ‘unreal’ husband, an expensively dressed old man with a wrinkled face; his slack thighs wobbled, as his feet slowly moved towards me in my mind’s eye. I dropped on my cot like an electrocuted bird. He was on me; the cot screeching, he galloping like an old dingy horse.  

  Hordes of clouds constellated around the Moon. The trees around the pond resonated with the nocturnal sounds of frogs, grasshoppers and owls, and girly ghosts, whose bodies had floated round-bellied in the river with dead embryos inside their wombs.    

On the porch, father sat down on the earthen floor eating roti with boiled potato. A rusted lantern reluctantly glowed in front of him. The feeble flame sprouted red sparks in its dying moment for lack of oil, and dimly lit up the coarse features of his expressionless face. Mother sat beside him. The Moon had come to the foliage of the mango tree.  Father was chewing when I walked out. Naked.  

My mother produced the most horrendous whimper she could, suppressed within the walls of her mouth, afraid to wake the neighbors up. Grandmother and aunt came running inside.  

Father chewed another morsel, more slowly this time, like a calm buffalo disinterest, and having no concern. He worked his mouth on the roti without looking at us at all.   

They came after me quietly, through the maize crop that was dense across the railway line. The clouds had covered the Moon making it dark all around. I was lying sprawled full-length on the ground. They were panting near me, but I was as invisible as the Moon.  

  “Child, O child! Where are you? They will kill us! Please, let’s go home?” 

  She appeared to be a different grandmother, a terrified and miserable old woman, not the one I knew.

They searched for me. 

“What’s the matter? Are you okay?” Grandmother prodded my mother who slipped and was unable to get up. She then saw the spiky stubble that had gone deep into her left foot, and pulled it out.

I heard my mother’s controlled groans.

“Let’s go back. You are badly limping as well. And she may have crossed the river by now. The carpenter’s son may be behind all this,” said my aunt.

 My mother sobbed. Perhaps, my name choked her throat. I longed for her. If I hadn’t been born a girl, she would have been dead for thirteen years now. 

Grandmother cried too, softly. Mother and aunt placed their heads on her bosom. She spread her arms and hugged them. The three of them then, as she-wolves, let out a united wail looking at the dark sky. It was obvious, I had run away. 

I knew in the heart of my heart that my mother, and also my grandmother were half-pleased thinking I had escaped. 

They walked back wishing me good luck.    

The Moon moved across the clouds. I saw dust smeared on my breasts, hips, and thighs. The soft dewy grass fondled my hips. The breeze blew cool from the pond with shreds of heat from the shacks. The breeze brought the boy I loved, the carpenter’s son. 

   I had seen him grow up with me, but knew a different him on the night of the fair, when his purple lips caught my pink lips in a juicy knot. 

The breeze felt sweet. His tongue shook my breasts, his sweet breath puffed my hair, and his hands caressed my hips. His piercing eyes felt the warmth of my heart. I looked at his dark face.  He filled me with new love.  

Besides our unified breaths, only a nightingale cooed in the bamboo grove. But at that very moment, something happened. Leaves rustled behind us. He got up with a start, and sprinted, far from the fields. 

The Moon moved behind the clouds again.  

“Who is the one who did you?”  

“Are you not ashamed?” The most powerful of the Seven Wise Men, the Chief shouted at me. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but his hoarse voice was familiar. It was the same voice that had declared when I was in my mother’s womb, Alright if it’s a girl she lives!

“No Sir, we only kissed. He loves me,” I said with fear.

“No Sir, I am thirteen, and he is fourteen, but we only kiss. We are going to be married when we grow up,”  I said with more fear.

“Kissed! Without your parents’ permission and the Seven Wise Men’s approval? Shameless girl, do you become a woman for free, like this!”

I crouched. They shoved me further down; I turned my face to the soil. They struggled to grip my thighs. I convulsed like a sacrificial animal moments before being slit in the throat by the butcher’s axe. The bigger man bumped onto me, his hanging tummy smashing me into the earth. 

When the second man substituted for him, the Moon reappeared. My eyes expanded. I called, “What, you shameless brother of my mother!” The chief waited for him to finish. 

The breeze still blew. The maize leaves still fondled my navel. A tuft of grass still swayed between my thighs.  

   Dawn was spreading out on the horizon. I plunged into the pond, and swam to its deep end like a hungry fish. The pot, with my skirt in it, was half-deep into the mud; yellowish grasses all around it, like a foliage around a fruit. 

He was on the bank with a tattered sari. I wrapped it around from my chest to my knees. I didn’t look at him. My love for him had sunken like water in a deserted well. If he had not fled from the spot, we could have fought the Chief and my mother’s brother, and left for the city before anyone knew about it.  

I ambled along the fields aimlessly.  

A hand waved above the maize crops below the railway line. It was my mother. She was waving at me to come towards her. I ran towards her, with a limp. The pain in my thighs and hips shot up. I leapt up dreaming to drop in my mother’s arms and cry. 

A train screeched and stopped. They usually swept past. The whirr of the engine was invigorating the stillness of the dawn.  

With a start, I looked at the train, and forgot my mother completely. 

   I ran through the dense maize crops. When my desperate hands touched the train, I looked back. The fields were silent. 

A woman and a boy of my age on the first seat looked at my cleavage with conflicting ideas. I ignored them, walked up to the toilet, and sat on the floor beside the door.   

The train began moving. 

It was only later that I found out about the incident. A woman had thrown herself off in front of the running train and dropped dead into two uneven pieces. The passengers huddled to get a glimpse of her through the window grills, as the bogie slowly passed by her. In two parts, she rested quietly on a stone bed someone had assembled. The two pieces brought close. The last stream of blood was flowing from the rift. Her face was tranquil.

I looked at my mother’s lifeless pieces, shedding tears for fate, pain and gratitude. Years later I thought I must have hallucinated. Because, even with her body in two halves, I saw her eyes were closing and looking at me, eyes of a bleeding and drained mother who was now dead. Two lines of tears rolled down the corner of her eyes that had gone cold.  

The train gathered speed. In no time, it was running towards a different world, the city of my dreams, where I will find my own tunnel to live a free life in. 

Dhananjay Singh teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research and teaching are focused on aesthetics, philosophy of language, comparative literature, English poetry, and modern Irish literature. His columns have appeared in The Indian Express, The Times of India, and The Pioneer. His poems have been published in Muse India. He is currently working on his debut novel. 

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