Geralyn Pinto is Associate Professor and Head at Department of English at St Agnes College (Autonomous), Mangalore. She is an accomplished poet and short story writer, and has won numerous accolades in both national and international creative writing contests. She was one of the three finalists for Desi Writers’ Lounge’s annual Short Story Competition in 2013 (‘Two Flew Over’) and 2014 (‘Shanthi Smells of Smoke’). Her writings have been featured in various national and international journals. Her oeuvre in fiction spans human interest, science fiction, low grade detective fiction, the supernatural, and bizarre combinations of the aforementioned. She confesses to a love of elementary mathematics and an addiction to Sudoku. Geralyn is hardly all bookworm and enjoys housekeeping and cooking with a special emphasis on baking rich chocolate cake.
Shanthi Smells of Smoke
The Holy Man intoned: Good deeds propel the soul from the here to the hereafter; from life cycle to life cycle; from karma to moksha; the sacred fire sets you free.
Darkness works like quick dry correction fluid and conceals Teen Taro’s many disfigurements. The village by night is almost beautiful. The gouged out belly of the earth which marks an abandoned copper mine can only be discerned in dim outline and you can’t see the warm and heaving refuse pit. The mango and litchi trees carry their summer burden of fruit. But that is in the zamindar’s orchards. The villagers sell cow dung to the zamindar’s household and some tend the trees. But they never taste the fruit.
Phantom fruit in the mouths of their children.
The thatched roofs of huts cluster like anthills, their layers of brick and straw added on by each generation: by father, then son, then grandson; and subtracted, sometimes, in one single night by a twisting, twirling chakravath, the curse of the cyclonic rain gods. Things happen suddenly in Teen Taro.
Just like they did two years ago in the first season of the mystery monsoon fever. Parmeela, like all the other mothers in the village called the fever ‘chamki’ – the bright, the shining one, the given name for a baby girl. Everyone said that if you gave your devils endearing names they softened, even grew kind or just disappeared. Sometimes you had to feed them all kinds of good things, make oblations, appease them with burnt offerings.
Many children died in Teen Taro in the first month of the fever. Hangoo lost his son, Charu. The boy had played in the emerald rice paddies by day, grown quiet and lethargic by sundown, then raved with the fever through the dark hours, the merest muslin of froth on his lips. In the morning he was as quiet as the stone frescoes in the village temple. Hangoo wasn’t the only one who had lost a child. Some lost two children; some all five.
Parmeela was partly lucky. Her son, Munje, caught the fever and now, two years later was still alive – though not completely. At least she could still see him where he was lying loose-limbed on a mat in the corner of their hut. He wasn’t part of the ash and bone silt in the bed of the river Subarnarekha. But her little girl, Navami Bhagyavati….
Think. Don’t think. Yes, think. But think of the now which is two years later from then.
Now there is yet a whole month of the dry season in which to swing listlessly between hope and dread before the chamki returns riding the back of the monsoon rain.
The boy, Munje executes strange movements and slurs: ‘I want to eat. I want to eat phulka. I am tired. My hands are hanging down. They are like lanterns. They shine with chamki. I had two brothers. My brothers are dead.’
‘Don’t please, please, please don’t talk!’ Parmeela stops her ears and tries to focus on something, anything – the matka of gently warming milk on the chula on one side of her; her new infant girl, Shanthi on the other.
Name her ‘Shanthi’, they had told Parmeela. She will bring peace to your troubled heart.
But the boy has begun his dead-voiced intoning again, ‘I had two brothers. My brothers are dead.’
‘You had no brothers! You still have no brothers! You had two sisters! One died. Navami died. One lives – Ganga. Get that into your stupid, sick head! But Shanthi was born – a month ago. So you still have two sisters! Stupid, mad boy!’ Then Parmeela crumples up her idiot son in her arms and weeps and kisses him till his dark parchment skin shivers into ink blue. She pulls away abruptly.
Ahh, Navami, of course, the day she had….
The actual moment when Parmeela had awoken from sleep to see her little wisp of a child curled into the arms of death always remained torn out of her memory. The newborn had smelt faintly of milk and urine but was cold as a washing stone. Parmeela only remembered some of the village women pinning her arms against the wall while the baby was taken from her lap and placed on the mud floor to ease the soul’s passage back to the earth. Beneath the infant skin, buds of blue like neel pushpa in early spring.
Death happens, the women told her. Navami must be born again already.
But she was well! She was mine! I want her back!
Babies are known to die suddenly, Parmeela. It isn’t the first time in Teen Taro. Perhaps she was needed elsewhere.
She was mine! I want her back!
At least your son who was visited by chamki still lives. How many others can say the same? He is the bearer of the family name; the perpetuator of your lineage.
But why did she have to die? I want her back!
That’s the way of life and death.
I want her!
Thirteen days later the waters of the Subarnarekha lapped over baby ashes, patting some down gently and carrying the rest on a long haul voyage to the Bay of Bengal.
Parmeela sits now staring into another fire, at other smoke. Rajcharan has not yet come home. He hardly comes to Parmeela now. The last time he had, Shanthi had happened.
Rajcharan was a man of few words. Like the village of Teen Taro on the porous border between the north Indian states of Jharkhand and West Bengal and consequently remote from the heart of either, Rajcharan was on the border of presence and absence. In the first years of longing when he drew away from her, she’d reach out in the dark and with her index finger trace the whorls inside his skull and wonder what he looked like from within.
In the weeks after Navami’s death Parmeela had ceased to ache for male tenderness, but she wondered nevertheless about the man who had once taken the step of asking her father for her hand in marriage – and no dowry either. She had been delicious then and if you pulled away the skein of worry webbed across her face, she was still beautiful.
She saw Rajcharan slip out of the hut into the darkness night after night, but she didn’t suspect it was another woman. She knew he had the same worries as most other men in Teen Taro – uncertain harvests, debts to the landlord, a daughter to be married off, in time, and, a son likely to be left an idiot by a mystery fever. But she didn’t think that Rajcharan shared the same weaknesses: muhuwa wine and wife beating.
Many other women in Teen Taro had a narrative of male turbulence scripted on their bodies. Like Karthikeyi, her saheli, did. Karthikeyi was the very first woman she had met at the village well all those years ago. She was the only woman whom Parmeela waited to meet every day. It was a sisterhood of the village well and the jamun tree.
It was Karthikeyi who had once told her why the village was called ‘Teen Taro’.
Parmeela had said, ‘Look – the dying grass, the scarecrow children. This village should be called ‘Hungry’ or ‘Thirsty’ in summer, and ‘Bloated’ in the rains. But it is called ‘Teen Taro’ – ‘Three Stars’. Too lovely a name for this village.’
Karthikeya replied, ‘There’s a long-ago story. The village was once beautiful and the constellation Nakshatra Krittika which, as you know, has six stars in it would shine down upon it throughout the hard months of summer and in the winter, too. And there was never a drought, a famine, or a flood in their seasons.
Then men in the village grew ungrateful and wicked. They sold three young girls, slender saplings that they were, to the zamindar. Their parents had died of a fever and the girls were blamed for it. The villagers hoped to rid themselves of the contagion by the sale of the sisters. This was a hundred years ago, may be. Now the zamindar was a man of evil design and he enjoyed the girls, draining their bodies dry with his lust. When they could bear it no longer they made a pact to immolate themselves which they did one night. The smoke from their bodies rose high and higher still and blotted out the Nakshatra Krittika. When it cleared, the constellation was seen again – but, whichever way you looked at it, three stars were missing. It is said that they fell into the Subarnarekha. Some say they lie in the river bed even now. And others say that the stars were swept away into the Bay of Bengal.’
Both Parmeela and Karthikeyi looked up from where they sat under a jamun tree at dusk. Her companion pointed out a cluster of three stars to the north east: a gap-toothed constellation in the skies above and down below, a river with three fallen stars….
But Karthikeyi was speaking to her friend, “People say that when three girls are saved – the stars will return and the constellation will be complete, once again.’
‘Tell me, is everyone in the world able to see that stars are missing in the Nakshatra Krittika?’
Karthikeyi, shadowy in the purple darkness, shook her head, ‘No. It appears so only to the people of our village.’
For a month after Navami’s passing Karthikeyi and Parmeela had not met. It was not seemly for a woman to wander about so soon after childbirth and the death of a child. Karthikeyi said nothing but thought, ‘Let her break the silence of sorrow.’
And by and by Parmeela said, ‘He’s bundled off our baby’s clothes, her woolen cap, her booties. He went off to burn them the day after she….Even the pillow on which she rested her little head and the other that I placed by her side to keep her warm.’
Karthikeyi looked away but her voice was soothing, ‘But that is the custom: to burn the roots of memory.’
‘Yes, but the pillows? We have little enough as it is.’
‘A father’s pain. Does…he show his grief?’
Parmeela reflected. Then, “He’s a quiet man – you can’t easily tell of his joys or sorrows.”
The minute was embalmed in silence as Parmeela ruminated: when Munje was born, he had squatted by her side and studied the infant. Then he remarked, ‘We had a good harvest this year.’ With Ganga, he took the little squirming bundle of girlishness in his arms. Then he laid it down and drew the old mul mul curtain across their only window. With Navami, he had begun working in the fields long hours and hard.
She finally remarked, ‘He worries about Munje. He doesn’t say much, but I know. My son cannot walk any more. He will never walk again. His father carries him on his back. But…why did he burn her little pillows? Why?’
‘It is not…a big sin…so they say.’
That night, for the very first time, Parmeela dreamt of blue baby girls with shadows on their pillows. In the morning she took the two other pillows in the hut and the one ancient horse leather cushion and threw them into the refuse pit. For a month Rajcharan stayed away from home till the moon came out and when he did come home, he sat in a dark corner, away from sigree light and Parmeela could hardly tell that he was there.
The last month of the dry season has burnt itself out and the dampness is upon them. The first wail is heard two weeks after the monsoon clouds have tethered themselves to the earth with glittering ropes of rain. Then the funeral drums sound through the village: dhumra dhum…dhumra dhoom, dhumra dhum…dhumra dhoom, a dhum, a dhoom, a dhoom.
And the chanting, ‘Bolo Hari, Hari bolo! Bolo Hari, Hari bolo!’
People look over their shoulders and whisper in tight, urgent voices, ‘The chamki has returned for the third time…’
It has taken away two children in the washermen’s quarters – both boys.
In the next few days the jyothishis are busy in the village, reading fortunes and plotting horoscopes and life lines. The priests perform the rites of passage of the departed from one life spiral to the next. The village gosai makes his prophecies, his henna locks in disarray and the liquor of fermented muhuwa flowers on his lips. He dances through the night hours, trembling with the spirit of the Earth Goddess within him: ‘The Goddess is angry! She has sent us the chamki! She must be appeased!’
The men gathered around the gosai chant, ‘What would she have us do?’
‘She demands sacrifice!’
‘What do we sacrifice?’
‘A cow buffalo.’
A wave of subdued protestation passes through the crowd.
‘A she goat, then’.
A low hubble bubble of disapproval.
The gosai sings and twirls and gibbers.
There are more deaths from chamki and it is spreading to the potters’ and the weavers’ and the rice growers’ quarters. Despair hangs over the village like a miasma. And somewhere in the middle of everything, an infant girl dies. She is about a month old. She has gurgled and smiled through the day. There is no fever. She is cherry brown at night and lavender in the morning and fast asleep. By noon her sleep has deepened into death.
In the smoky hours before dawn, Parmeela works wheat flour into soft dough, rolling it out into perfectly round phulkas, and she thinks about destiny. ‘Navami Bhagyavati’ means the ‘New and Lucky One’, ‘the Goddess of Good Fortune’. Yet three weeks was all her infant had had before the luck had seeped out of her little lungs.
‘If I could mould destiny, what shape would I have given to Navami’s kismet?’ Parmeela’s lips twist slightly as she carefully fashions a lump of dough into two little marbles and one small cylinder. ‘Yes, that’s it. I would have given Navami something different – between her legs.’
She is weak with laughter, the end of her saree pallu stuffed into her mouth.
Still, baby girls have a way of dying in Teen Taro.
Pat the phulka, place it on the chula, watch it fill out with life, flip it over lightly. And it’s all done: golden brown bread, breathing out little puffs of air through dark areoles on its surface. Now for the next one.
She’s been here eight years in Teen Taro – how many baby girls has it been? More girls than years. The first baby girl was Bela in the very year that Parmeela had come to Teen Taro as a newlywed bride. There was cholera that year, she recalls. Then three little girls the next year – in three different families. She remembers their names: Amba, Kajal and Mukta. It was a pity, the women had cried, a great pity. But in each family there were already one or two other girls. So what was one supposed to do? Then Kushboo, a pretty petal of a child. She went, poor thing, and ate the stalk of an oleander leaf. Then…? Parmeela tries to bring the names to mind.
Another phulka heaving itself to life on the .flame.
Ah yes, she remembers now: Jyothi, Girija, Garima…a roll call just like in her village school many, many years ago.
Then, Navami and now… Durgesh.
A tiny streamer of smoke from the phulka. Something smells burnt. She will take no more chances.
Two and a half dozen phulkas, two vegetable curries besides pickle, rice and curds. She has never dared to clear out their month’s supplies on a single day. She will stop. There is enough food to last a long time. And then?
Rajcharan has entered carrying a sack of paddy. He places it in a corner of their one-room hutment before sitting down to a late night meal. Then he opens the gunny sack and runs his fingers through the un-hulled rice and places a few hard brown grains on the flat of his palm and shows them to Parmeela.
‘I will wash and thresh the grain tomorrow’, she says quietly.
‘Be careful. The paddy hull is very sharp. You can cut yourself.’
‘I’ve been your wife for years now. You tell me the same thing every time. But I know.’
‘Last time you cut yourself badly.’
‘I will be very careful.’
When the quiet hours descend on the village, she hears a furtive knock on the door and gets up, light-footed as always. Shanthi is wrapped up in a coarse blanket, ready for the journey by night. Parmeela’s few belongings and her two little girls’ clothing make a small bundle. She lifts the baby to her bosom. Shanthi smells faintly of sigree smoke. Parmeela takes Ganga by the hand. The girl’s little limbs are unsteady and her eyes dark, sleepy poems. Parmeela looks for one last time around the single room that has been her everywhere for so long. Munje sleeps untidily. She kisses his hair lightly. He is a boy, she muses. His father sleeps next to him. Rajcharan’s lean, muscular arms are flung at an almost impossible angle, pushing up against the hardness of the wall.
Parmeela turns away. Outside Karthikeyi waits for her with Bindu, a tiny drop of a baby girl in her arms.
They proceed in silence, their hard but slender feet whipping up the sodden earth. They walk past the huts with their infant girls asleep between pillows, gunny sacks of razor-sharp paddy, and poison-milk oleander growing in their dirt yards. They take the Chandil road that gleams wetly between the muhuwa trees.
Silhouetted against the mogra whiteness of moonlight and the distant glitter of the Nakshatra Krittika,
they walk along
– two women with three little girls between them.