Myths, like electric blue fingernails, are prettier when destroyed. I discover that on along train journey of nail-biting and nirvana. While everyone onboard is discussing our new Prime Minister’s Diwali plan to visit the soldiers on the Siachen Border, my phone keeps beeping with social media outburst over the PM’s decision. With all the disapproval and praises, there’s endless trivia about the hard life of the soldiers in Siachen. It is all so maddening that I don’t notice when the ticket inspector says “Hello? Madame Ji?”with red betel juice lips, since I’m trying to ignore all the commenting and beeping by absently opening and shutting a box of tic tacs, over and over again. Because there’s something about making a piece of plastic perfectly fit into another. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle that demands to be solved,a box of tic tacs demands to be left alone. And yet, you have to play with toys like that to realize that if you play hard enough, you can disappear. Because you weren’t really there in the first place. You’ve just been trapped inside a box of hard mints all along, which is empty, with or without you. Soyou’re lost, as long as you’re living. Maybe that’s what those soldiers on the Siachen border think, when they wake up to frozen toothpastes every morning.
May I have your attention, please! That’s the microphone lady with an accent. Onetwo four five four, New Delhi to Ranchi Rajdhani Express will depart from platform number ten at fourteen hundred hours. I’m going home for Diwali. Ranchi is where Mummy makes me eat sprouts every morning and Papa takes turns between reading the newspaper and urging me to do an MBA. Delhi is where I spend my nine-to-fives correcting prepositions and tenses on a real estate website, before returning to the bad internet at my paying guest facility, which makes Mummy and Papa look like ET and ET’s twin on Skype. Everyone else is going home too. Some are carrying Cadbury’s Celebrations in glittering neon cellophane for their families. While others have festive-discounted love and nostalgia in torn polythene.
The air smells familiar. All railway stations in my country smell the same. It’s more than just the smell of half a century of evaporated urine. It’s the smell of paradox. The smell of American Touristers and Lakme makeup, drugged infants and fake beggar Mums. The smell of households dragged in torn bedsheets and syrupy Jalebis, Hugo Boss and soggy armpits. The smell of happy journeys, sad journeys, and muck. Fused, until you can’t tell one from another. Because here, India is one – with one sense, one sensibility and one smell.
I check my watch. I have five minutes for a lawless smoke break. The last time I got caught smoking at a railway station I had to spend fifteen minutes apologizing to a potbellied police officer. I should have paid a fine of Rupees 5000, but I’d pulled the A-line above my knees and made puppy-eyes to get a waiver. I’ve made sure not to get caught since then. Practice makes a man perfect. A woman just gets badass. I snap the lighter and the black paper starts crackling, as the scent of cloves leaks like a confession into the air. Strings of tiny flags from election campaigns are tangled in the branches of a tree.It’s amusing to watch the election symbols of different political parties coming together, for once. The Lotus is resting on the Palm, which is hanging off the Broom that’s hinged onto the Hammer and Sickle, crossed against each other.Under the tree, an old man is standing barefoot. His feet look like skinny outgrowths of the layers of dirt on the platform, with wrappers of Mango Frooti everywhere. His dilapidated Nokia cell-phone is playing an old Hindi song. His face, stitched together with wrinkles, looks peaceful as he balances a large wicker basket on his head. Inside his basket are colorful Diwali toys on sale. The tree’s trunk is decorated with fairy lights that change from blue to green to blue too many times in a second and hurt my eyes. Diwali is the festival of lights. But it is also the festival of homecoming. That is why every year on Diwali, children buy these earthen toys for their playhouses. There are miniature tigers, elephants, parrots, buckets, frying pans, rolling pins, stoves, idols of Rama and Sita and anything else that you need for your playhouse. Including the dolls that stay outside and guard the other dolls inside, as if only dolls can save dolls. These dolls carry rows of lamps in their hands, arranged like sunrises above their heads. They are the gwalins. The milk-women.I take another look at the flags with the hammer and sickle crossed against each other, like a bicycle pump inflating a crescent moon, and quickly look away. The hammer and sickle is the election symbol of all the Communist parties of India and their associated guerrilla groups. My lips are sticky with sugared cloves, as I listen to the scratchy sounding Hindi song on the old man’s cellphone. It’s a song about defunct goodbyes. Because some things and some people never go away. The thing about old Hindi music is that it allows you to pretend that you can do more than just remember. It is 1992. I have scrunchies in my ponytails and our house still has a portico. I wear frocks with frills, Ducktales starts at 6 pm every day and Mummy hasn’t had the mole on her nose surgically removed. I want 20 rupees to buy Animal Chocolate. Tigers are my favorite. I chase ants on the front porch after school, wondering how to get the 20 rupees. I forget about it after some time and play with leftover incense-stick twigs. Mummy and Papa do their prayers in the Puja room every morning and evening. That is two sets of incense sticks, twice a day. Mummy uses two and Papa uses four. I rub them between my fingers and save them in an old pencil box behind the idols of Rama and Sita. I count them each night before going to bed. I have 12 more twigs in my stash and ash-smeared hands to hide from Mummy. Next morning everyone is watching the news on TV. There’s a group of men on a river bank; some are wearing scarves on their faces while other have their hands tied back. The men with scarves have flags with the hammer and sickle symbol. It’s like shows on Cartoon Network. Papa tells me its computer animation. The men with scarves look like Ninja Turtles. Mummy tells me they are Naxalites. I read aloud how that’s spelt on the TV. They are Naxalites with an X. I look at my hands. They are still covered in burnt incense. I remember the tiger chocolates, but they keep watching TV when I ask for money. So I grow up and fall in love with clove cigarettes, instead.
The siren goes off. I drop the stub in a puddle of Frooti, as the fairy lights stab the milk-women in the basket like daggers everywhere. They look like effigies in a protest where the crowd is chanting “Inquilab Zindabad!” Long Live the Revolution. These toys remind me of a little girl from back when I was one myself. The train is moving as I grab a handrail and hop inside. And when I seethe old man with his basket of toys, running barefoot to board the same train, I’m already giving up on the fate of those memories in a cage that I can’t unlock.
This train will cover the distance of…too many kilometers in too many hours. I know. The microphone lady is back. We wish you a safe and happy journey. And this is when I start biting my nails. Because fifteen years ago, Buddhni is running barefoot, too. She is holding the hem of her frayed frock with both hands. Inside her kangaroo pouch are marigold flowers from last night’s Diwali decorations. She is waiting for her Baba. He comes to clean our toilets every day. When Buddhni sees me, I wave, but she just holds the flowers in her frock like her joeys. Her eyes are made up of windy evenings drowned in oceans of automobile headlights. Bright and flickering.I set up the playhouse and bring my Diwali toys. She brings her withered marigolds. I say thank you. She says ‘whale-come’. I laugh and tell her that whales are in the ocean. Welcome, I correct her, WEL-come. She had to drop out of school, but she wants to learn English. Whale-come, she says, same to same. When it’s time for her to leave, I promise her that she can have my gwalin– the yellow earthen milk-woman – if she stays a little longer. Buddhni’s smile is a wildfire that ignites on her lips and extinguishes somewhere far away. Somewhere where she is more breakable than the earthen milk-woman in my hand. By this time, the train has picked up speed. Thetinted windows make the clear afternoon look inky,like the crack of dawn, pregnant with unknown sunrises.
Every once in a while, the door connecting this bogie to the next one opens, swinging nervously between people, their babies and luggage and homesickness. Now I’ve taken this train enough number of times for most housekeeping boys and ticket inspectors to know me as the Madame Ji who drinks black coffee and keeps her tickets inside newspaper-covered books. I even remember the order of all railway stations, how their names are spelt in both English and Hindi, the number of minutes the train stops at each one of them, as well as every village, water fall, river and mountain that comes on the way. But every time the train stops at Hazaribagh, for all of two minutes and thirty seconds – which has debris and sun burnt grass for a railway station – I think of Buddhni and feel the same fear. If my heart doesn’t break the way I want it to, if and when I meet her again, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. And I can’t take that risk. Because long ago, it’s fifth grade and mixed fractions suck. So I sit on the last bench during Mathematics and read my encyclopedia. Chapter XXVII.Moths. The moth has always been instinctively drawn to the moon. That’s how it identified directions. But with the development of alternative sources of light, the moth got confused. It couldn’t tell the moon from the light bulbs. The true from the false. The moon is far away, so the moth never learnt what to do when it reaches it. It only learnt to give up on it. But with light bulbs, it could get up-close. However,unaware what to do when it finds what it has always given up on, now the lovesick moth just flies around the light bulbs until it exhausts itself and dies. And its entire life is spent arriving at the wrong destination, in oblivion. Perhaps, the little Buddhni of my memories is the moon, and the young woman she grew up to be in a Naxal-hit village is the light-bulb. But I don’t have it in me to be the moth.
This time, however, I’m feeling brave. I’m not guzzling a cup of coffee between every five pages of a novel. I’m eating nail polish and smoking at the half-open train door, watching the smoke disappear at 150 km/h into the October sky, as lifeless moths lie scattered under the reading lamps. Dead, but in love. Hazaribagh is a small town located in the Red Corridor – an area in the east of India that has the highest rate of illiteracy, poverty and overpopulation. It is home to India’s Red Army – the Naxalites. Inspired by the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong, the Reds want to eradicate socioeconomic inequality. It’s a war between the Reds and the state. Buddhni’s Baba had taken her to a village near Hazaribagh, after losing his job as a toilet-cleaner in Ranchi. Soon after, he had joined the Reds. Thousands of men, women, youngsters, andeven children join the Red Army every year. I’ve always imagined Buddhni as the girl who liked marigolds. I could never imagine otherwise.
Today, in spite of where and how she is, I want Buddhni to know something. It is what helps me work through my sorrow. It is what I wait for every year on Diwali, when Mummy makes marigold garlands, sitting cross-legged in our Puja room. She pushes the needle into the soft green stems, telling me the same story for the umpteenth time. Her eyes invariably get bigger as she reaches the part where Rama defeats Ravana, before returning home. It’s the victory of light over darkness, she remarks, collecting the fallen yellow petals in her palm.The battle of Ramayana is an eternal battle that wages in the human heart. I tell her I know the story by heart already. But she just measures the garlands against the glittering Shubha Diwali stickers and tells me that the greatest stories are the ones that we know backwards. We know how they would end long before they begin; they don’t reveal any secrets or remind us of what we’ve forgotten. They just help us acknowledge what we’ve known all along. The truth.She puts these long, green leaves between the marigolds. She corrects me if I call them Ashoka leaves. She calls them ‘False Ashoka’. With a faraway look in her eyes, she tells me that the actual Ashoka trees are a rarity these days, then recalls the meaning of Ashoka in a voice that’s too brittle to be hers. Sorrow-less, she says. Sorrow-less.
When the train reaches Hazaribagh, everyone is still discussing the PM’s Siachen visit. One of his tweets say that it’s because of these brave soldiers– who stay far away from their loved ones and risk their lives– that millions of Indians can celebrate Diwali with their families tonight. And millions of Indians retweet it. Papa never lets me travel in second or third class AC compartments of trains, because he believes that first class AC compartments are safer. And here I am,ready to wander off into a place where Naxalites plant bombs inside the dead bodies of CRPF men, so the hospital where the postmortem is conducted is blown to bits. I’m never impulsive. I use my twenty seconds of standing in the line to plan my Subway sauces. I’ve used my two decades of life to plan the rest of it. But today,there’s urgency in my longing for Buddhni. A longing that is not part of the plan, and yet,I’m going after it.
Once I hit the streets of Hazaribagh, there are barely any street lights and all the stares I invite tell me that I’m inappropriately dressed. So I undo my hair to cover the noodle straps. I feel stupid holding my pepper spray. But other than that, and a fire in my belly that I didn’t know existed, there isn’t much else to hold on to. I must take the bus to Salgaon and ask for the house of Sukra Ho, Buddni’s Baba. As I walk, small pebbles make their way into my sandals and my feet get caked with dirt. Finally, I climb into a rickety bus that screeches off to Buddhni’s village, as the rush of adrenaline floods my vision with a million dots.
The people of Salgaon are all dark-skinned, with flat noses and thick, black hair. The women are wearing sarees without blouses, revealing chocolate brown shoulders. The men have swollen underlips, waiting for the tobacco to restore their sanity. They are the tribals. The Adivasis. Buddhni is also an Adivasi. I remember she had black eyes, and blacker skin. Backin Ranchi, she used to live in the tribal slums,where Adivasis live like outsiders in the cities. And now, walking with pebbles in my sandals, past boundary walls of neatly crisscrossed branches and the intoxicating smell of rice beer in the air, the outsider is me.
I manage to get some vague directions, but wherever I ask for Sukra Ho or Buddhni, people nod in the negative. After a while of futile inquiry,the shops are all closing down and the streets are deserted, when a middle-aged man walks up to me. He is reeking of rice beer, and barely able to stand. I quickly turn away from him,but the man starts bawling, thumping his chest with his fist. He starts following me, as I walk hurriedly and tighten my grip around the pepper spray. I finally crouch behind the trunk of a tree, panting. By now the drunken man is nowhere to be seen. But something is sinking inside of me. It’s possible that I don’t find Buddhni at all.And even if I find her, we might not recognize each other. Fifteen years is a long time. Besides, what if I miss the last train home?These thoughts refuse to leave my head as I start sobbing quietly, and watch my tears wet the ant-hills around my feet. Small, shallow, anthills. Nothing like the ones that had covered Valmiki’s body as he had meditated for years,before writing the Ramayana. That’s why they named him ‘Valmiki’ – ‘born out of ant-hills’. My tears are uncontrollable now. I’ll never be able to tell Buddhni my favorite story. The story of Mummy reciting the story of Ramayana.I must give up and call home asking for help. I’m trying to stop sobbing before I make the call, when I notice a pair of eyes in the dark, observing me intently. There’s something impatient about those eyes. They belong to a young girl of about my age. She is wearing a khaki uniform. Her backpack is bigger than her body.When she takes off her camouflage cap to reveal a bald head, my full head of hair that’s frizzy with travel and humidity makes me look like Medusa in comparison. I thank her as she passes me a creased handkerchief from her pocket. Fifteen years may be a long time, but it’s not long enough. I wasn’t meant to find Buddhni, after all. It was Buddhniwho had to find me.“Whale-come”, she says.And I laugh and cry at the same time.
It’s cloudy, but a few stars are out in the sky as I stand in the grassy doorway of Buddhni’s hut, trying to explain why I’m here. But she just gazes at my chewed blue nails without saying a word, then collapses on the floor, holding her head in her hands. For the next few minutes, she looks like an oil-on-canvas, framed to perfection in the fractured door panels. My heart skips multiple beats as I arrange and rearrange the words in my head.
“Buddhni, I’ve missed you,” I bite my lips, “You never thought of me?”
She wipes the sweat off her face with her hands, leaving wet marks on her black cheeks “No,” she says. And I tell myself that she’s lying.
“I’m going home for Diwali,” Maybe she would cheer up thinking of our times in Ranchi, and then we could get straight to the memories and the marigolds.
She finally looks into my eyes,“You know where I go for the Diwali?” her eyebrows are wrinkled, “In the jail!” she cries, “I going in the jail.”
“But why will you go to jail?”
“The pulice want to catch me and other garls. We kill forest officer tomorrow.”
“You mean yesterday?”
“And you…why did you kill him?” My heart hammers away inside my chest.
“He olwej come and rape the woman,” Her face is drenched in sweat again, “We kill him for the justice.”I take a deep breath and squeeze her hand. It is damp and feverish.
My phone starts ringing and Mummy’s flawless Tinkerbelle nose flashes on the screen. I still remember the day Mummy finds me playing with Buddhni. Her Tinkerbelle nose isn’t so flawless as yet. It has a brown mole which she wants gone.She presses a Natraj pencil between my index and middle fingers. A Chekist’s handshake.Don’t play with her. I would grow up to find out that it’s a Communist punishment. She is a bloody Naxalwaadi. Then rack my brains over how Mummy knows Stalin. And you’re an upper-caste Brahmin! Then grow up some more. She will kill all of us, do you understand? No. I don’t. But I don’t tell her. I just hold the gwalin with my aching fingers and run after Buddhni as fast as I can.
I make and unmake and make and unmake a fist. Just like I’d done that night after the Chekist’s handshake. It almost hurts, too. Just like it had so many years ago.I don’t pick up the phone.I leave it ringing near a heap of dried branches, and walk into the sun burnt grass. It’s Diwali tonight. I should have reached home by this time, but now that I’m here, I must celebrate it like the soldiers on the Siachen border.Far away from my loved ones, hoping they’ll forgive me for trading those fancy Diwali lights for the phone’s blinking LCD.
We lie down next to each other on the grass, but in the opposite direction. Buddhni doesn’t sleep with her head towards the north. She’s afraid it will turn her into a corpse. So we stay that way. Medusa on one side, Medusa with chemo on the other.I notice the glitter nail polish on her toenails, recalling the time when we used to play with Mummy’s glitter nail paints.It goose pimples my soul. Buddhni has tiny feet. They have suntanned patches of skin, making the light and dark patterns look like mouthless faces. Two scooped-out eyes, one nose, and some crappy Geisha make-up. And when Buddhni starts talking, it’s as if those mouthless faces are talking to me. Telling me things only mouthless faces can tell. They say that long ago, the best part of their days began when Baba would return home. After a long day of cleaning toilets,he washed up for dinner. Each time,the mouthless faces would press their ears against the thatched door to hear the sound of water trickling down Baba’s hands. The sound of a hard day’s work philandering with blameless soap bubbles. The sound of unconditional love.The most beautiful sound in the world. After Baba moved to the village and was killed in a CRPF ambush, the mouthless faces had nowhere to go, no one to go with. For the last decade they have had all kinds of government officials banging on that cracked front door. Some tear their clothes and tie them up. Some burn them with cigarette butts and put chili powder in their vagina. Some leave them with a puddle of blood between their legs. And at times, there comes a man who proposes for marriage between alcoholic hiccups, telling them that they are the most beautiful mouthless faces he has ever seen.
The clouds in the sky look like flaky whitewash, and before I can blink, the world blurs into a smudged watercolour – an infinite painted landscape left alone and forgotten in a damp attic. Warm saltwater distills off my eyelashes, as I follow each drop to a place where Heaven’s whitewash isn’t flaking off. Buddhni says that it’s not just government officials who abuse women. Poor women like her, who try to escape their misery by taking up arms and joining the rebellion,are also sexually exploited by the Naxal men. So then I guess, Buddhni chose Naxalism not because it’s a war between the country’s poor and a capitalist government, but because it’s a war. And in a war you’re allowed to strike back. Because if damage is the art of the wounded, then Buddhni is a warrior first, and a woman later.
“Please run away before the police get to you,” I say. She sits up and looks at me.
“Haan,” she pulls out a rusty sickle from a pocket and holds it up, “I forest woman. I olwej run away.” I flick the lighter and her face glimmers like a madly melting candle. How I wish to make it up to her for all those lost years, one brittle gwalin at a time.
“Fir kabmilenge?” My Hindi sounds as half-past colonization as her English.
“Patanahin. Don’t know fir kab we meet again. But you know I become so happy to see you today,” she says, “And you know today also my day.Today Budhwaar.”
“Budhwaar?” I check my watch for what day it is, “Today is Wednesday” I scratch my head and find grass in my hair, “So you’re named after a day of the week?”
She breaks into a Mona Lisa half-moon at my surprise. “Haan, I born on the Budhwaar so Baba call me Buddhni. Wadnussday.”Now that’s convenient, I think to myself.
She adds that Budh, the God of Budhwaar, was the son of Tara (Brihaspati’s wife) and Chandra (Brihaspati’s student). I didn’t know they had illegitimate children in the Hindu Mythology. But with 330 million Gods and Goddesses, a few bastards are no big deal.
Myeyes are still moist.I think of last week, when I’m lying on the couch and crying, just like I am now. My breath smells like ganja. I have my Iron Maiden t-shirt knotted into a crop top. Beads of sweat are multiplying on my bare stomach.My silver payals are making merry noises, caressing my ankles. I try to grab something and end up with a fistful of rolling paper. My other hand is entwined in his. And I’m wondering if the taste of Magical Lemon would have been closer to the taste of magic or lemons or both if my last orgasm wasn’t a minute and a half ago. Never mind the lies they feed you with chewing gums. The lights are all switched off but the room has a blue and white tinge. The color of Facebook. The open laptop screen is bored of girls cribbing about Cumberbatch’s engagement #Gutted #Heartbreak #GodWhyAreYouDoingThisToMe? My other hand is still entwined in his. He’s looking into my eyes, telling me that he loves me, telling himself that he knows why I’m crying. But he doesn’t. Because he doesn’t eat milk and Froot Loops for breakfast every morning. I do. Because Froot Loops represent my human condition. In order to be a part of someone else, you have to break away from yourself. Anything less than that and you’re left with a big hole in your being. Anything less than that and you’re a Froot Loop.Froot Loops close on themselves, and in the process of enclosing a gap within, end up leaving another one without. A much bigger gap.An absolute abyss. See? #StructurallyLoveless.
That’s why I often think of the Ashoka Vatika, where Ravana imprisons Sita.Sunday morning Ramayanas on the TV show her miserable there, away from her husband, Rama. But I imagine Sita happy. Happierin theAshokaVatika, than she is with Rama.Because when you don’t find happiness where you should look for it, you invent it where you shouldn’t. And invent it for Sita, too. Maybe great stories are greater than our imaginations. Maybe they aren’t entitled to tell us the truth at all, because they don’t trust us to handle it with care. Maybe we need to beware of great stories. Especially if we know them backwards.
Every time Sita is about to walk through fire to prove her chastity to Rama with the Agni Pareeksha, I want to stop her. But I can’t, because I’m not there. Why are all Hindu goddesses married? I want a bachelorette goddess, who doesn’t wear the sindoor in her head.You know what they say about two people perfectly fitting together like pieces of a blessed puzzle, and how wonderful that sort of thing is? But then, there are these people who are broken in all the wrong places to fit into anybody’s puzzle. People who are put here to quietly make the world unlearn how to make sense of itself.People who don’t quite realize that if they think about it, this sort of thing is kind of wonderful, too. And yet, twenty five years ago, all that ET and ETs twin can ask and tell of each other are in those two passport-sized black-and-white pictures. Papa has a handlebar moustache. Mummy has synthetic ribbons in her braids. They agree to marry each other without meeting even once. I want to stop them, too. But I can’t, because I’m not there either. I’m here, lying on the grass with a girl called Wednesday. But I can go back to stealing their incense-stick twigs. So I do. Then I build mountains of burnt incense between them and me, as the world rapidly runs out of prayers.
On our way back to the railway station, we see a patch of cow dung cakes. Buddhni pulls up her khaki pants and sits down, studying the round, fingerprinted cakes. She tells me that before joining the Reds, she used to smear cow dung paste on the floors and walls of her hut. She says that cow dung is sacred. It’s also anti-bacterial, anti-scorpions, anti-centipedes, and anti-mosquitoes. I nod. It’s also anti-city. I’ve grown up entirely in cities. Cities that neither sleep nor let you sleep, cities that sell star fruits outside Louis Vuitton showrooms, cities that hold mass kissing campaigns to fight the Indian moral police, cities that don’t get scared of bomb scares, cities that don’t forget, cities that don’t forgive, cities that smell like makeup and fried chicken when not smelling like motor fuels, cities where homeless kids have broken blood vessels in their eyes that illuminate the traffic lights red, so the world stops their air-conditioned automobiles to yawn at the stack of Cosmopolitan in their hands, for all of 60 seconds, cities that give you grey hair and fluorescent memories, cities that have zero tolerance for lonely city girls, who are therefore metamorphosed into mascara-eyed creatures of noisy Ladies Nights. I stop thinking andclose my eyes. The insides of my dreams smell hot and grassy, like cow dung.I want my delayed loneliness now.
The siren goes off in the distance and the well-lit train looks like a string of diamonds in the dark. I’ll have to run till my legs fall out in order to get there in time. But I spend an eternity crammed with blank seconds looking into Buddhni’s eyes, standing under the bejeweled night sky. The saddest thing about the city is the absence of stars. I haven’t seen so many of them in all my life. The stars take me back to the day we steal Mummy’s black glitter nail paint. Buddhni can’t keep quiet while eating her dal-bhaat, but she doesn’t talk while painting her toenails. Her hands shiver with every brush stroke. With every question that tiptoes into another blind alley. The black paint and the silver dots look like a starry night sky. Buddhni believes that stars are dead people. One day she will paint her Baba on those toenails. Because he is one of the Ninja Turtles on TV after the Bara Massacre, where 35 upper caste men have their throats slit by Naxalites. But for now, the cosmos, with its infinite chaos, is confined to our messy toenails. The train starts moving as soon as I board it. I mustmake upa believable story before reachinghome. Buddhni is holding the window’s railing, running along and waving. And as she slips out of sight, a banana and apple colored Indian Railways train exits through the corner of my conscience. The hooting and clanging koo-chukchuk-chukchuk of one journey fading out into the grass like murmurs of another.
Gazing through the window, I realize that some places exist only outside train windows, where people live across railway tracks, inside heaps of golden hay, with one door and one window, where the government breaks all their jhopadis every two weeks, yet they always manage to build them back, to say bye-bye to all the lost faces peeping from the trains, and understand what it means to (a) Bid anonymous goodbyes (b) Build relationships within the rounded rectangles of train windows (c) Find somebody just so you can lose them.
Later on, I lock myself in the stinking toilet and smoke. And when I step outside, I’m surprised to find the same old man,selling his toys in this train, too. His Nokia cell-phone is still singing of goodbyes that don’t work. By now the song is trapped in my heart.
Raheinnarahein hum. Whether or not I exist.
Inside the man’s basket, the yellow gwalin is balancing a mini sunrise on her head. I am studying the jagged outlines of her face, as two police officers come to question me. They say that they have information that I was spotted with a village girl. They add that people like her are a threat to the nation’s internal security, so I must cooperate.I nod in the negative to all the questions that follow. A rough break topples the dustbin with my lipstick stained cigarette stubs. It’s reassuring to feel that familiar cuboid in my pocket. Djarum Black, with the brave red triangle for the A in Black. I’m hung up on these cigarettes for the crackling sound of burning cloves. It must take enterprise to burn so willingly, so vulnerably.
Mehkakarenge, banke kali, bankesaba. I’ll be in the scent of flowers and dawns.
I can lock myself in the toilet to smoke some more, or keep lying to the officers. But it’s 12:45 PM – too late for another Black, too early for integrity. Because in the end, we are all creatures with eyes like dripping windscreens, nose like Rudolph, and conscience that empties out through all those cracks in the space-time canvas, one drop at a time.
Bagh-e-wafamein.In the Garden of Fidelity.
The microphone lady announces the arrival of the train on the Ranchi railway station. I notice the good old weighing machine on the platform. When I was a little girl, these machines were the only good thing about railway stations. All my tawny cardboard tickets read 22 Kgs. They also carried a picture of some Bollywood star along with my fortune for the day. I kept all my tickets under the mattress in Dadi’s room. Now the train has come to a stop on the platform, as the psychedelic lights on the weighing machine emerge and expire into each other. Red, green, white, blue, yellow, blue, white, yellow, red, yellow, green, yellow,old, battered, torn, rotten, dead yellow, yellow pages of Dickens’ classics in the Rama Krishna Library, yellow teeth of the beggar singing Bollywood songs outside the temple, yellow gwalin balancing a yellow sunrise. Not blue or green or red. Butredyellowgreenyellowblueyellowwhiteyellowyellowyellow.Yellowlights.Big lights.Sick lights.Because we celebrate the victory of light over darkness.Because we have to.Even though it’s dark through the key-hole, under the bed, and inside the giant weighing machine where the cardboard tickets with our fortune for the day come out of.Even though when I was a little girl, there were power cuts every night. And Papa was often away from town, so Mummy and I would sit on the porch swing and lose count of stars. I asked her when he is coming back with my Barbie stationery set. She didn’t tell me. I asked her if she knew where Buddhni and her Baba went. She didn’t tell me. I asked her if Animal Chocolate is made of animals. She didn’t tell me. She also didn’t tell me that even with 1 million stars up, above, the world so high, sometimes it will be pitch-dark inside of me. So I grew up in spite of it. And later on, with all those Physics Monday Test questions about light travelling in a straight line, I still learned nothing about the light-years of dark matter that we are made up of.
Inside my head, it’s the 4th century BC. Sita refuses to take the Agni Pareeksha this time. She knows that she’s better than that. That’s why Buddhni paints her Baba on those starry toenails, in spite of what the CRPF did to him. She knows that he’s better than that. After all, the yellow gwalin is by my side, as I sit here in an empty train compartment with two police officers. Her turn to go inside the dollhouse, cook colorful food on colorful kitchenware and worship colorful deities. My turn to balance a sunrise and save her. Because someone, somewhere, is telling a story. Backwards, this time.
Sorrow-less, it begins. Sorrow-less.
Jalebis– A deep-fried sweet soaked in sugar syrup.
Ramayana – A Sanskrit epic poem, considered to be one the greatest works of Indian literature.
Agni Pareeksha – A mythological event in the Hindu epic Ramayana. After being abducted by the demon Ravana, Sita’s chastity was doubted by people. To prove herself, she walked through fire and this event is called the Agni Pareeksha.
Sindoor– It is the mark of a married woman in Hinduism. It the red or orange-red colored cosmetic powder worn by women along the parting of their hair.
Jhopadi– Thatched huts.
Kritika Pandey is a Young India Fellow, freelance features writer, published poet and short story writer, and a Charles Wallace scholar for Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.