Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Snow Baby (a Short Story)


                                                        Snow Baby

“ This is for you,  Gramma,  in case you feel scared at night.” My granddaughter Reba handed me a heart shaped fluffy pink pillow.
 I flew from California and reached Maryland this very afternoon to help out my daughter’s family and care for Reba as Tara, my daughter was going to have a baby soon. 
I looked around the room that I’d be sharing with Reba. Stuffed animals of all kinds, a teddy bear, an owl, Ernie and Bert, Peppa Pig and Olaff were all sitting or standing, piled up on her dresser. Reba’s artwork -  several drawings of loving families with smiley faces and stick figures holding hands adorned the walls.  Even there were glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling assuring help in darkness. And Reba’s bed was just across from my futon. 
“ Why’d I be scared, Reba? You are right next to me.” I  hugged her. Reba gave a big smile. Then clutching a reedy rag doll she rolled her eyes flapping her pigtails, “You never know!” 
She pulled the blanket and cuddled next to me with a stack of books. 
“ Reba, time for just one-bed time story today. You were chatting too much with Gramma, but the clock does not stop. It’s way past your bedtime.” Her mom declared. 
Reba gave me a book to read that tells a story of a seed. It has roots under the dirt and wings up in the air. It has arm like branches and leaves that look like fingers. 
The branches sway and dance in the wind and invite the birds and bees. Birds and bees come and kiss them and flowers grow. Flowers become fruits and the children enjoy eating them. 
Then comes a day when the plant shivers in the cold as the wind blows. It can not dance anymore. Leaves fall, branches wither and drop and everybody says that the plant is dead. Indeed it looks dead. But the seed stays under the ground and when spring comes next year it shoots up again with leaves,  flowers, and fruits. 
“ What a lovely story, Reba!”
“ Do you think the peas I planted on Mothers Day will be alive again, Gramma?  Mommy said it is dead and we threw it. ”
“You never know!” I mimicked her,  rolling my eyes just like she did a little while ago. 

The following day Tara’s friends threw her a baby shower. The weather was bad, so the party had been rescheduled to our house. We hurried to clean up the apartment and make it pretty.  Joshua, Reba’s dad bought some daffodils and some yummy pastries. I learned that they were called hamantaschen. They are Jewish cookies, a specialty of Passover. Tara hurried to get ready and Reba was watching her intensely.
“ Go, Reba. Go brush your teeth and get ready. Gramma  can help you with your outfit and hair.” 
Reba rushed and slammed her door. In a short while, I heard a big commotion coming from  Reba’s room. Reba with mascara on her eyelids and coffee brown lipstick all around her mouth was caught. She tied the heart pillow on her belly under a white dress and attached little blocks on her shoes to make them look like high heels. 
Tara dragged her out of her room as it was discovered that in the process Reba had broken Tara’s favorite coffee colored lipstick.  And now Reba has ruined her pretty white dress with mascara strained tears. 
“You look like a raccoon.  Like a Dracula. Why on earth…” Tara screamed throwing her arms in the air, not sure how to vent her emotion.
Joshua rescued, yelling from the kitchen as if an immediate attention was needed for some other catastrophe.  I took my granddaughter to the bathroom and wiped her face with a face wash towelette. 
“I just wanted to be like Mommy, Gramma.” Reba looked up with raccoon eyes. I gave her a hug and tried to undo her mistakes. 
“ You will be like her, my dear. For now, let’s settle with this pink dress and a nice french braid, how about that?”  I let her share a bit of my colorless lip gloss and showed how to gently put it on the lips, not around the mouth.  Reba, now happy, skipped out of the room. 
I remembered the day when I got a slap on my face for stealing my mother’s perfume. That was fifty years ago. Yet the memory is crisp as a photograph. How beautiful Ma looked when I was a little girl and how much I wanted to be like her.  Then came a day when I did not like hearing that I looked like my mom.  And a time when I hated her mannerisms and prayed not to inherit them. 

The party went full swing. Reba and her mom both forgot and forgave each other for the morning mishap and were thoroughly enjoying the games and other activities. While I was in the kitchen, cleaning up I overheard,
“ Well Tara, if you ever need a break, … I know how much we love our moms and how useful they are…yet…you know..I have  an extra room in my basement” Rolls of laughter drowned the rest of the comments. 
I was shocked. I had never thought of this possibility.  Could I exhaust her while I thought I was helping?  Could I be that one-too-many in this family, soon one day? My heart ached. 
Later that night Tara did not feel well. There were some complications and  Tara had to go to the hospital.  The doctors were worried. She was admitted right away. 
When Joshua and Tara left with the little suitcase, Reba looked lost. She stood in front of the window waving them, though it was dark at night and nobody could see her. From the ninth floor kitchen window, we stood still until the backlights of the car illuminated; the two tiny red light flickered and slowly swerved merging to Westbard Avenue. 
Reba turned to me, eyes welling up, “Will my Mommy be okay?  When will she be back?”
“ Mommy will be okay, and she’ll be back with the baby.” I brushed her hair kissing her forehead. 
“ Will my Mommy die, Gramma?  What if my baby dies?” Reba brought her face very close to mine and looked straight into my eyes.
“Mommy will not die, Reba. There are doctors to make her feel better.” I gulped. 
Reba stirred and left. Then she brought her lanky, reedy rag doll again and told me that she had inserted a  tiny plastic baby doll that was given as a party favor earlier this afternoon,  in the rag doll’s belly. Reba cut off the rag doll’s belly with a pair of scissors and now all the stuffings were on the table. 
“Gramma, I can’t find the baby!”  She looked worried. She churned all the cotton and now the little rag doll looked really pathetic. 
“ Fix her Gramma. Fix her please.”  She pleaded sniffling.
To cut the long story short we managed to find the tiny half-inch plastic toy baby under a chair. I brought some thread and needle, put the cotton stuffing back and sewed up the doll’s belly.  “There you go. All better, see. ”
Reba wiped her cheeks that were streaming with tears and a wide smile like a rainbow beamed on her face. 
“The doctors will make Mommy all better.”  She kissed me and hurried to the kitchen bringing a couple of plastic bowls. 
“ Let’s have some ice cream, Gramma.” I knew Reba was feeling fine. 
In a short while she fell asleep on the sofa, her head on my lap, all cuddled up, while I tried to keep myself distracted with an old show of Golden Girls.
But I drifted. 
Down the memory lane, I came across a lost world. It was a stormy dark night and I entered a haunted house. Thunders clapped, the wind howled. Doors and windows flapped with loud thuds and clanks. Bolts of lightning flung brief glimpses of rooms and corners that were dark and inky. Memories were buried here. Memories that taunt and mock, whimper and moan. I was scared. I wanted to get out of here, I looked for that pink heart pillow, but I was stuck. 

I remembered my mother. I remembered her last years when she was stuck in bed as a stroke victim and the guilt I felt.   I could not be with her when she needed me most.  My father thought Ma would be the first one to go as he was in much better shape, health-wise.  But that did not happen. Ma was left alone with hired caretakers in Calcutta, while I was twelve thousand miles away in America. 
A young girl, Rani, used to take care of her at night.  I could be with my mother for only ten or twelve days each year during her last four years. 
 One time, when I went to visit her  I happened to sleep next to Ma under the same mosquito netted bed. Rani slept on the floor in a sleeping bag without the mosquito net. She believed that mosquitoes didn’t bite poor people. They only go for good, rich blood. 
“Rani, I need to go to the bathroom” Ma called her. 
“Ummm!”  Rani mumbled. A few minutes later Ma whined again, 
“ I really need to go, Rani, or I may wet the bed.”
No response.  Deep breathing and snoring sound from Rani’s deep slumber floated. 
“Seriously, Rani.  Can’t hold anymore. I’ll have an accident.”
“Yes, yes…just a little…. “Rani mumbled again turning to the other side.  At this point, I sat up and yelled
“What’s going on Rani? Is this why we hired you? Is this how you take care of her? I just happened to see it today.”  Rani startled, hurried and took Ma to the bathroom.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I thought of the day when I overheard Rani scolding Ma. Rani thought no one was around.  As soon as I entered, she straightened it like smoothing out a bed cover. 
I felt miserable thinking Ma’s helpless situation.  I felt guilty and hopeless. She shouldn’t deserve this, oh God! I had a conversation with God and prayed to let her go.  Please take her now God, I can’t see this anymore. 

The next morning the sun shone through the window. Ma woke me. 
“ Look what a beautiful day.” A kokil chirped kuhu kuhu.. and Ma said, “Look, spring is here. Check the flower pots on the rooftop. The lilies must be in bloom.”  
I took a sip of my tea and gave Ma a tight hug.
“ Ma, I can’t see all that you are going through. The way the physiotherapist pulls your arms and legs making you scream, the way Rani treats you. I decided to have a different night care for you. This is not what you deserve. Life should not be like this. “
“Life is fine, Khuku (my nickname).  God has given me enough in life.  These things happen in old age.  When the physiotherapist makes me do those exercises I feel like ants crawling all over me and pins and needles pricking…but he was only trying to make me better.  And don’t you think of firing Rani.” 
We both stayed silent for awhile until,
“ Rani loves me.  She brings cakes, though cheap ones, but with her own money to share with me.  She is like my Tara.  Remember they were born in the same year, the same month?” I did.  Rani’s mother used to work as a cook in our house. 
“ She is young like Tara, full of energy, hard working and so they sleep well at night.  Only Rani is poor, She needs the money.  She will have to take another night shift somewhere else if she loses this. Don’t fire her, please.  Only if she gets married, let her go. And if I am not there give her the gold chain that I kept in the locker. You don’t live here, Khuku. I don’t get to see you when I want.   I look forward seeing her face every morning. 
I felt a deep pang.  I knew Rani could do things that I couldn’t.  I would not be able to help her in the bathroom.  I tried that once and it was a disaster. 

Rani stayed with her all along. I was not there when Ma passed away. My heart filled with a strange emotion now and I felt ashamed of me. What did I know of life that I wished my mother’s death, who made peace with her own problems.  How selfish was I to pray like that just so that I could wash my hands and end my guilt feeling? 
Today I prayed for her forgiveness.  I was ready to show how much I can love if I had one more chance.  
But Ma’s gone.
A chime in my phone woke me up.  
It was Joshua sending me a message. 
‘Tara gave birth to a beautiful baby girl an hour ago. Her name is Eira Sabita Goldman. Eira means snowdrop, and Sabita was your mom’s name, Tara told me. Mom and baby  are doing well.’
My eyes welled up. I looked out the window. It was early morning, snowing. Treetops shimmered with icicles and dollops of snow. The Westbard Avenue was cloaked with a white blanket. The cinnamon brown buildings looked yummy like chocolate cake with frosting.  I kept on enjoying this view from the ninth floor window until the morning sun dazzled with a rainbow smile.  Now I could wake Reba to give her this big news.
A couple of months later I received a letter in the mail.  It was from Reba- a picture of a flower on a long stem that she drew with a caption. It was with all misspelled words but I could make out what it meant. 
‘The seed didn't die.’  



Monday, October 2, 2017

Will You Be My Friend?

Why I write what I write?

"Will you be my friend?"  - That is what a seven-year-old Muslim girl asked her Hindu classmate,  Khukumoni, the protagonist of my book. It is a quote from the book I just finished writing - Shadow Birds - a young girl's story during the Partition of India.

The reader in me asked my writer self why did you write this book?  Why did you write and rewrite this book for the last thirteen years? In this blog post, I tried to explore the reasons.

Before that I'd give you a glimpse, an excerpt  of this part from  the book:

That day on my way back home,  I found that this girl was sitting next to me on the school bus. The bus took a long route. Through the City Bazaar, Gol Pukur, Durga Bari, Kesto Pukur Road, across the riverside, around the  Pocha Pukur - Rotten Lake it would reach Mymensingh Station Road.  Reading the names of the streets with the rocking motion of the vehicle,  I dozed off.

All of a sudden  I heard someone whispering in my ear — “ Ayee,  I am Padma, what’s your name?” — that two-front-teeth-missing girl.

“Khukumoni“.  I replied half asleep.  She grabbed my hand. “ Mine too.  Khuku. But that’s my nickname”. 

That is a very common Bengali nickname,  meaning, precious little girl.

She turned her head and checked around, then with wide eyes whispered again,  “ I must tell you something. There are some naughty girls here. You’ll find out yourself, I don’t need to point. They tie the ribbons of your braids with the back of the seat when you fall asleep and then get off the bus before you do. You would not know…and when it is your time to get down,  you are stuck.  The driver gets cross when you are late and..and…”   Saying that she untied the knots of the ribbon from my braid that was carefully tied with the wooden bar of the back seat.  I felt so thankful. 

At this point the bus stalled.  There was a procession going.  Lots of men with tupi on their heads and red jhandhas were shouting ‘Inquilub Zindabad’!  The placards on their hands read — we want justice.  

I overheard the driver explaining it to a senior student that there was a Muslim athlete who brought a lot of pride to us all, regardless of Hindus or Muslims but he was refused when he went to drink the water from a tube well that the Hindu community only used. The Muslims were angry that the Hindus cheered when he brought the trophy but refused to let him touch their water.  That was what this protest was for. That was why we were in the middle of a traffic jam.

“That’s not nice.  It must be hurtful to the Muslim boxer who won the trophy, ” Commented the older girl. 

My new friend, Padma, asked me, “Are you Muslim Khukumoni? I am.”

“I don’t think so.” I shook my head. 

“Never mind. Now, we’ll  have more time to chat. If I  invite,  will you come to our house to play? Will you be my friend?

Khukumoni and Padma became best friends until it was intercepted because of the partition 

I started to write this book so my children and later grandchildren would know their grand mother's/ great grand mother's story. But as I was writing I saw a larger audience. When I heard the Oral histories of many common people who are eighty or ninety years old today, who had experienced this, I felt there must more people like me who will be interested to hear such stories.

Political pundits of yesteryears thought that the partition would solve the  Hindu-Muslim problem.  Seventy years later, did it? 

NEW DELHI — One April afternoon, a group of men clad in saffron scarves barged into a house in Meerut, 40 miles northeast of here, and dragged out a young Muslim man and a Hindu woman. Their offense: They were an interfaith couple in love.  This happened on August 18, 2017

In Bangladesh, a Hindu nursing lecturer was hacked to death for not wearing hijab. Again happened just a couple of years ago in 2015. 

This is not only limited to  India- Pakistan/Bangladesh problem.  It spilled thousand of miles away in USA also. On Father's Day, 2017 a seventeen-year-old  Muslim girl in Virginia was assaulted and killed after her visit from the mosque. 

I wonder how history repeats itself. And it happens everywhere.

Yet, I am hopeful. I feel emotional when I read stories like in one village in West Bengal Hindus and  Muslims prayed together. They felt :

"We live in the jungles of Sundarban. We face similar natural clamities, share 

same hardships. And when we don't differentiate that time then why would we do now?"

That also happened recently, on Sept 26, 2017.

So, I wonder is it possible?  Will you be my friend?

If you have similar stories that you have heard from your relatives, I'd love to hear. Please do share them in the comments 


Friday, September 22, 2017

Synopsis of the novel

Writing the synopsis of your novel is one of the hardest things.  I did finish my novel Shadow Birds finally, which  I had been writing for more than a decade. Now it is time to learn how to find a publisher, which means writing cover letters, synopsis, and all that.
Stone artwork by Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. Courtesy of Julietinparis.net blog. 
 Or, choose to self-publish, which again demands a lot of homework assignments.

Caro Clarke made a nice point that writing the synopsis of your novel is like writing the obituary of your novel.  Your story is done, characters are gone and you are in a grieving stage.  Though you feel the void you got to get up and write the obituary, not a long boring one but a short, sweet one that embraces all the important points and plucks the right chord for the reader.

Merissa Meyer makes it easy breaking down in 6 major steps, while Graeme Shimmin cautions that it is not a ' blurb' of the sort you'd find on the back cover of a book. The synopsis must tell it all, no teaser for the reader.

I am confused. I have to write the summary of a 200-page book, which needed 50,835 words to tell what I wanted to say in two or three pages, in just 500  to 800 words?

'Oh no! We don't have that much time for you', I hear. 'Make it shorter. Just an elevator speech.  We have barely six seconds for you.  So say it all in one long sentence.'

That is exactly what had happened when I went to a conference last spring.  I was stuck with an agent in an elevator. The lady put on her glasses that were hanging like a necklace and looked at me right in the eye and asked, "So what do you write?"

I kept an eye on the blinking numbers on top of the door and inhaled " Fiction."

"About what? What kind of fiction?"

"It's a story of a girl during the partition of India in 1947 who became a refugee and joined fourteen million people who lost their homes and families." I breathed.

"Historical fiction. Young adults, I suppose. Could be in Women's fiction genre  too?" She nodded adjusting her huge briefcase.

"Yes. " I gulped trying to be confident that I  understand genres.

"Why did you write it?" She crossed her brows.

How could I explain to her that  I could not help not writing it?  Like Maya Angelou had said, 'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you'.

 For the last thirteen years, this little girl kept on chasing me to tell her story, I mean my protagonist. I saw her growing up from a missing one-tooth seven-year-old little girl to a teenager of seventeen.  So, for all these years I wrote and rewrote until I felt I had done everything I could.

"The seed of the story came from my mother, all that she had told me in her last four years, while she was stuck in bed as a stroke victim. Her memory was sharp. The nostalgia of her beautiful childhood days kept her going and then she also told me the agony of leaving her home because of the Partition."

from radhikaranjanmarxist.blogspot.com

The elevator stopped. We reached our destination. I knew this was the end of my story. But she stayed with me as we walked out. "Interesting."

" Yes, and as I was writing I found that this is not an isolated story of one single girl of a distant past, in a faraway country. It is happening everywhere.  It is happening now." I added.

I was thinking of my experience in Greece that I had a couple of years ago. I saw the anxiety in a Greek lady whom  I met at a store.

"We are up to here with our own problems here.  We have to work two jobs to meet the two ends meet and see now there are all these refugees."  The Greek lady touched her forehead.

An image flashed in my mind that I had seen on the T.V. screen the night before. A boatful of refugees from Syria, a brother and a sister holding each other's hand, who had just become orphans, a pregnant lady clutching her protruded belly, the blank stare in an elderly woman's eyes with her hands stretched expecting someone would help.

What was their fault?

"See the geography is changing, maps are constantly altering. Cities are bombed, countries are wiped out. They are getting new names or erased and forgotten. But history repeats itself." I said.

" History repeats itself!" She echoed. "Finish your book." With a smile, she disappeared.

Shucks!  Who was she?  Why didn't I care to ask anything about her? Why didn't I get her business card?  I was too wrapped up in my own self, too excited to tell my story and didn't care to listen. That was my BIG mistake.

So, I beg you, please do tell me your story. Who are you that came to visit my blog? Do you know a refugee, or were you one?  Do you write?  Are you struggling with writing synopsis?  Please do leave a comment.  Thank you.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Shiuli phool

I have a nostalgic relationship with the shiuli phool. When I was little, in India I remember this flower was the messenger of autumn. When the scorching summer days bid farewell, when the days started shortening, we could smell shiuli phool in the air.  We knew autumn was coming.  Ma Durga was coming.  Our most favorite festival Durga puja was not far away.

But today I am to talk about the shiuli phool-  the white tiny pinwheel flower with a carnelian tube like stem. And when I crushed the flower my fingers turned beautiful orange filled with a heavenly smell.

This flower is only available in the far east, in Bangladesh and India and part of Thailand.  It is honored as the official flower of the state of West Bengal in India, where I came from.   But then it also has another name, the Night Jasmine ( though scientists would refer it as Nycanthes Arbor- Tritis.)

Why such a name? It has a story. Parijat, the flower fell in love with the Sun. But Sun did not care.  Parijat felt ashamed, hurt. She wilted and committed suicide. She was burned and from the ashes rose a tree- the shiuli flower tree. That is why it is also known as the Tree of Sorrow.  It does not beam in the day time but when night falls, it blooms and falls on Mother Earth.

Hindus and Buddhists offer this flower to their Gods and Goddesses.  Children make garlands picking them up from the ground.  No other flowers that have fallen on the ground are allowed to be offered to the Supreme, except Shiuli.

My story is- I love this flower. It is linked with my childhood. I remember rolling on the dropped blossoms mixed with dew in early cool autumn days when I was a little girl of seven or eight.  I was scolded by elders but I could not help, I could not forget that soft feeling on my skin and that fragrance.

I can show you pictures but how can I share that smell?

Today was a special day. After a muggy afternoon, I heard strange sound on my wooden deck in Walnut Creek, California.  Thunders clapped like it did in India during such muggy hot days, and big drops of rain started falling on the ground.  The branches of tall trees swayed, the clouds gathered and a nostalgic smell of rain mixed with dry earth filled the air. I hurried to pick up the cushions and pillows from the garden.

Something more strange happened.  A pot of shiuli phool came to my door. A dear friend found out an online store that sells this exotic plant and she got one for me.

I am so so happy. It felt as if a dear someone from my past, my childhood days came to visit me here in America and she promised to be with me in my home.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Akash Pradeep

 An excerpt from the novel in progress;



                                                                            Akash Pradeep 

Ashmani's  death shook me. Often she rambled in my thoughts. While I tried focusing on Geometry, my mind meandered somewhere else.  I saw Ashmani. She’d dance right in front of my desk,  swirling her canary yellow ghagra with burnt sienna polka dots. The tiny embroidered mirrors from her skirt reflected circles of light, spinning around,  making me dizzy.  Her body oscillated in chakkras and tatkars and stopped at precise beats. She’d  stretch her mehndi painted palm to me,  with a selam, touching her forehead, like a Mughal baiji court dancer, expecting me to applaud 'kya bath, kya bath'.

It was all illusion.
I tried to concentrate again. My tests were not too far away. This Matriculation examination would determine my future, I tried to remind myself.  But my mind drifted.  I could not help eavesdropping Ma and Sati’s conversation from the other room.

“Do you know the grocery store,  that Ma Tara store, is closed now, closed forever?”  Sati announced. 

“Really?  Why?  It was the biggest one in town. He was doing so well....  Just closed the store like that?” Ma was surprised. 

“ What else could he do, Didi? All that scandal with his son and that Muslim girl… after all he is a Hindu, na?  The neighborhood boys will tear him to pieces.  Chhire khabe je! “ Sati explained.

“ That girl messed it all up. What was she thinking?  A marriage between Hindu and  Musselman?  I’d be upset too if I find my son bringing a Muslim bride all of a sudden. See what she did to her family!  Who’ll marry her little sister, now?  She killed herself all right,  but what about the ones who are left?”  

I was shocked that my mother said all that.  Then I heard Sati’s response:

“ Yes, Didi, it is sad. Such a beautiful girl, so young and she had to commit a suicide? Such a sinful act! Then, on the other hand, what choice did she  have, Didi?”

I felt like screaming.  There was a choice.  There are choices, only if you respected their love. You all messed up things for no reason.  Hindus and Muslims lived together for a long time. It is possible. But I kept quiet. The nine-point-circle theorem revolved in front of me until I shoved the book away. Meaningless geometry.  I closed my eyes resting my head on my arms. 

Ayee Khuku!.”  Ashmani stood in front of my desk. 

“ You don’t feel scared that I come, do you?” She gave me a side glance. 

“ No. Of course not, Ashmani.”  I assured. “ At times I feel I have become you, we have merged. Believe me, I feel so sorry for you.  So sorry that you couldn’t dance that night for petty politics and I stole your show. I had never had a chance to tell you that. You inspired me.  You taught me dancing, kindled the love for dancing in me.  And now,  all that had happened to you, makes me  feel so so sad for you!” I tried to reach her arm. 

“I know that Khukumoni, I know.  And that is why I come to you.  Some people, even my loved ones, my own family, are scared.  They are scared of me,  but you are not.  You invite me in your thoughts. You are strong.  You are different.” She replied. 

“Ashmani, what strength you see in me, I don’t know. I feel frustrated that I cannot speak up. I cannot stand  up for all the injustice I see.  I cannot protest all these nonsenses.  It hurts me to hear the things they talk about you, that you have no room in heaven. I feel like screaming.  But in reality, I do nothing.”  I sniffled. 

“ Don’t worry for me, Khuku.  It’s over. I don’t know about heaven or hell, I just dance around, in nothingness, in the vast abundance of nothing. I don’t know how to explain it to you. But it is peaceful. “  Then with a pause, she continued:

“ And who said I have nowhere to go?  I go to those who cares for me. Who makes room in their heart for me, who are not scared of me, Khuku, That’s why I come to you. I will always be in your memory. I will never die, as long as you keep me alive.”

“ I know you are not an evil spirit,  Ashmani, There is nothing to be scared of you. I only wish that I were stronger.  I wish I could stand up to protest what is wrong”  I confided. 

“ I’ll help you, Khuku. I will.  I will stand beside you when you need me, I promise.  But don’t you forget to dance.  Promise?”  She glanced with a smile. 

“ Promise!” I nodded.
Ashmani disappeared.  I could hear the sound of ghungur from her ankles fading away.
I woke up.  It startled me.

That night I had a strange dream that  I had gone to a place up in the Himalayas. There, the river Ganga, young, swift,  ran fast. Tthe currents were strong. It was twilight time. The sun had gone down, a few stars were twinkling in the vast turquoise light. 

Tiny boats were floating  in the river.  They were made of leaves. Some had tiny lamps inside. The lighted little boats sailed with the current, dancing on the water.  Some drowned, some went further floating until they were out of my sight. 

A woman was preparing her lamp. She was muttering something with folded hands, like a prayer; then she gently stooped down  to float it on the river. Her head was covered in a shawl. 

I knelt down, asked her what was she doing, what was this all about. 

Akash pradeep ( lamp to the sky) “ She answered. 

“It is a way to connect with the souls that are gone, who left for the other world. This is a way to remember them, honor them, thank them for what they have done for you. This is a way to pray for them so that they are peaceful in heaven. It is a Hindu ritual, don’t you know that, girl?” She looked at me. Her veil dropped.  It was Ashmani!

A rooster cackled. I jerked at that harsh call, threw away my cover and jumped out of bed. I remembered that I had my Math test today. 


That day after school I took the shortcut path through the woods, behind the broken mashjit. This was the path that Ashmini used to take, and I had never known.  This was my first time. 

Strange insects and bats made eerie sounds. There was a constant susurrus, a hissing sh sh, probably the wind through the bushes and leaves made it.  A gray bodied lizard with warty skin blocked my path, lunging,  its front arms stretched,  its huge head raised,  it stared with bulging eyes.  Then it started croaking tuck -too tuck- too ballooning its throat.  I thought this must be a takkhok, which I had never seen before.  

A doel swung by, low enough scaring the creature to run away.  The indigo bird with her eggshell white belly sat on a branch nearby and started to chirp. Doyel- her English name is the Oriental magpie. Babu had taught me from his book, I remembered.  

While I was preoccupied with these thoughts of birds, a thin slate colored snake zigzagged right in front of my toes and crossed the path hiding inside a hole.  I shrieked.  

 With wider strides I started marching faster and found that the wood thinned gradually,  I could see the light better, now.  The path had gone up to a hillock and there stood a lonely bokul tree at the top. No other trees were around. 

 I stood under it, panting, thinking this was where Ashmani had her first kiss that morning. This was where she was tied and whipped at the end of the day.  This was the tree that had witnessed it all in silence. 

Further down,  a set of steps descended and merged to the river bank. It was high tide time. Water splashed and thrust on the steps, whirling and swirling, drowning the steps with bubbles and gushes. 

I opened my school bag, took out my journal and snatched a page out. I folded the paper and made a paper boat.  Then I lit a candle striking a match and crouched down to float it  in the river with a prayer:

Ashmini, we never met while you were alive, but I meet you every day after you are dead. I feel guilty, very guilty that I stole your show and was happy with the glory and admiration I got. You gave me a lot, you inspired me.  But I never gave you anything.  And  I am sorry for what you had to pay for this Hindu-Musselman clash.  You were innocent, you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t have died.  But it happened. Now, my friend, I am here to wish you peace, so that you find a place in heaven.

I stood up.  Wiping my tears with the back of my hand I started to climb. 

I lost balance and missed a step on that slippery stone and found myself bobbing in the water, pulled by the current. 

“What are you doing here, in this dangerous place? “ A voice shrilled.  A hand pulled me up. 

“ It’s not needed.  I am fine, I can do it myself”  I shrugged him off.

It was Mahim, that monda maker. He looked so different with a beard and a musselman tupi,  I couldn't recognize him.  Rahamat, his friend came forward, and the lathial Aziz. 

Abhisar (tryst) eh!”  Aziz simpered.“ Tell your father to go back to your country.  Go to India.”  He scoffed. 

“Now your Gandhi is gone too. And he was not killed by any Musselman, mind you.  Your own people murdered him, that nanga fakir ( naked poor ). Did you hear what his killer, that Hindu murderer say?  What was his name? Nathuram or whatever!” He added.

“Arre thikachhey (Oh let go). Ayee meye ( hey girl), don’t you ever come here.  Understand! And yes, tell your brahmin father to clutch his paita (sacred thread) and go to your own land, not here.” Mahim shouted mocking my father clutching his thread. 

I couldn’t believe my ears that it was Mahim who was telling all these. Just a few years ago he was a Hindu himself, he told us the story how his father named him  Aswini!

I turned and started to run as fast as I could until I reached home. I thought I should tell this to Babu.  But I didn’t.  At the end of the day, at mealtime when he asked how my day went, inside I was churning, but  I pretended it was just a normal day. I kept it all to myself.