Somewhere in Gujarat

The dogs had stopped barking. With their tails tucked between their legs they cowered in corners among the debris. A brown pup was suckling its mongrel mother, that lay stiff. Charu wanted to ask someone something. But he forgot what. Also, he did not know if he could speak. He tried to say aloud, ‘Can I talk?’ Though the wind had stopped howling through his hair, something still marred his hearing.

The market, where his shop once stood, was razed to the ground. Rubble and plaster covered his tie-and-dye hosiery stall. His face was streaked with dust and his clothes were ripped in the panic-stricken dash into the cornfields when he was jostled from all around. The tiny tri-coloured paper flag on his kurta though was intact. Just this morning, while pinning it on his lapel, his daughter said: ‘Babuji, can you take me to school on your cycle?’ 

‘Have you forgotten it is Republic Day today? There cannot be school.’

‘We are celebrating it in school with marching, Babuji,’ she told him patiently.

Charu’s younger son burst in mockingly, ‘You should see them, Babuji. Left, right, left… like frogs!’

Before sibling rivalry raised its omnipresent head, Charu said, ‘Yes, Munnu, we will go on the cycle.’

Someone touched his shoulder. It was an old woman.

‘Please, can you pull out my grandson? He is in there somewhere.’ She pointed at a crumbling structure from which bricks and twisted iron bar had crawled out.

Charu vaguely knew that he should be mouthing comforting words, but all he could manage was a shake of his head. He saw her scrambling over to somebody else.

Slowly, still in a daze, he set out on foot for his home. The cycle, he knew, no longer existed.

On his way he tripped only once. Though strewn with rubble and concrete shards, he found it easy to climb up and down the uneven path. Mechanically he trod on the newly unfamiliar path, with none of the apartments he was used to seeing. Buildings lay on the ground, innards out. One such climb nearly toppled him over. He was sure the leg belonged to a woman. The ankle was slim and had a silver chain with tiny bells around it. He tried to walk faster, though the thought of what lay ahead made his steps slower and slower.

He reached Munnu’s school. The once-proud building was now silent and prostrate. Charu strained his ears. No, no left-right-left could be heard.

He remembered how disappointed he’d been when told a daughter was born. ‘A girl? Are you sure?’ he asked his aunt, who was also the midwife in the family.

‘Yes,’ she had said, wiping her eye.

But that was before he met his Munnu.

He had thought the earth under him was going to tear open.

First there were the vibrations, then it had begun to rock like a cradle. The wind had whipped the dust into a frenzy. All around him were cries of ‘cyclone, cyclone’. The white tourists, who had been smudging his tie-and dye merchandise with their unwashed fingers, had looked petrified. Then he heard the unmistakable crunching of stone walls that shook the very moorings of his heart. Like mad women possessed by evil spirits at temple festivals he and the foreigners had made for the fields.

‘It is a bomb,’ another shopkeeper had whispered. ‘Pakistan has done it.’

But even from a distance they could see the walls crack open, convulse and come down. Hands from the earth’s belly were pulling them down.

He leaned against the broken down school wall. His legs gave way and soon he was sitting by the wall.

Slowly Charu began to weep.

THE END

(Reprinted by the author’s permission)

Orange ShinieShinie Antony is a short-story writer. Her books include Barefoot and Pregnant, Seance on a Sunday Afternoon and Why We Don’t Talk. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Asia region prize in 2003 for her story A Dog’s Death. She is a co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and editor of the festival magazine Beantown.

Paani da rang vekh ke / Ringtone

Short story in Hindi by Viky Arya. Translated by Madhavi S. Mahadevan (originally published in Sahityashilpi – an online magazine).

Until yesterday, one thought twice before stepping out of the house into the scorching heat and the dust storms that sweep over the city on a summer day. But not anymore – thanks to the metro. HUDA city centre, Gurgaon, is the metro’s last stop. It is also the first. The biggest benefit of catching the Yellow Line from this place is that one is assured of a seat for the journey.

Even so, given that it was two in the afternoon on that day, the waiting crowd did not appear to be any less than usual. It was a crowd made up mostly of young people in late teens and twenties. Among them was the woman in skintight blue jeans and a short sleeveless top in the same shade. Her shoulder length hair framed her tanned face attractively. She had a leather bag over one shoulder, a cell phone in the other hand. Leaning casually against the wall below the pink sticker that said Ladies Only, she looked like a college student, or perhaps a sales girl in a fashion store in one of the malls.

The metro arrived. Polished glass and steel doors noiselessly slid open. She was the first one to hop on board, headed straight for the corner seat, and occupied it with a certain familiarity, as if it had been reserved for her. The doors of the metro had barely shut when her cell phone rang.

Paani da rang vekh ke…

“Hello?” Her tone was cautious. She glanced surreptitiously at her fellow passengers. Almost everyone was occupied. Many were listening to music on head phones, others were quietly conversing into their cell phones. She relaxed and began to speak in a normal tone. “I’m on the metro… My job what else? Offoh…You! Don’t irritate me…No, there’s nothing to say. Now, I’m going to keep the phone down…I can’t talk right now.”

She cut off the connection.

Did she belong to the city or was she from one of the smaller towns? There was something of both in her. A small town girl, perhaps, who had gotten used to the mood and mannerisms of the city. Had she come here in pursuit of her dreams? So many dreamers have felt the magnetic pull of this city. Her ringtone suggested a liking for modern film songs, and what she had said on the phone, too, had the slightly exaggerated drama of a dialogue from a Bollywood film.

Barely a minute later: Paani da rang vekh ke…

Now what? Why are you bothering me? Haven’t I said so – I can’t talk at this moment.”

Something about her tone suggested that she was talking to a member of the opposite sex. A boy of her own age? Someone older? Was he pleading? Please don’t cut the line…Please…I need to speak to you about something important.

“Important?” Her face froze into a mask. “There’s nothing important between us…Nothing to talk about…What?That? Forget it!”

She cut the line.

Paani da rang vekh ke…Paani da rang vekh ke…

“What is it? Why don’t you just forget about me?” Cut.

Paani da rang vekh ke … Paani da rang vekh ke …paani da paani da paani da

“Why are you doing this? What do you want? Why don’t you back off? Why, hunh? …Oh I see! And what will you do? Tell me…what can you do? Tell me!” Cut.

Paani da rang vekh ke …

“Do what you want! I don’t care.”

She had raised her voice enough to attract the attention of other passengers. A pair of college students, sitting on the floor with their books on their laps, turned to look at her, smiled at each other and then got back to their reading.

“I’ve already said what I had to say, haven’t I? Our paths are separate from now on. I have nothing more to say or do with you. Wait! Yes, I do… Go hang yourself! Go. To. Hell… Don’t you dare call me again. I am switching my phone off.”

Paani da…

The girl stared stonily out of the window. The temples of Chhatarpur standing beside the long road looked empty and drab. It must be the light that had bleached them of their beauty. Usually they looked magnificent in the morning sun, and in the soft evening light they were magical.

Paani da…

Her face looked like a graven image. Her eyes were fixed on the Qutub Minar. The ancient tower was enveloped in the haze of the afternoon. Was it the haze that blurred its outline or was it the smog in the sky of Delhi? The sky that was no longer blue but a tired, irresolute grey.

Paani da…

Paani da…

She cut the calls impatiently.

“Saket! Next station is Saket. The door will open on the left. Please mind the gap!” a recorded male voice reminded the metro’s passengers.

Paani da… Her phone rang again, but this time the gap had been longer, as if the caller was making one last attempt.

“Yes…What is it?” There was no fatigue in her voice, only anger, real or make believe.

The metro stopped at Green Park. Dozens of women filled the compartment. One of them wanted to sit in the thin sliver of space next to her. Without glancing at the new passenger, she shifted slightly, pressing closer to the window to make place. The doors closed. The metro glided out of the station.

“Who?”

Her tone altered as she protested. “On no, no…please! Don’t disconnect…Busy? No, no…Of course, we can talk…I’m on the metro, actually…Call? Oh…that call? That was … my boss. You know! These men! They’re all alike. Talk nicely, smile a little…Bas, that’s all it takes…No, not you! Never you! You are the exception…Yes, yes. I mean it!”

The metro entered the INA Market station, sashaying past the waiting crowd.

She lowered her voice a notch or two. “Shall I call you then?” A light smile played on her lips. “Later in the evening? You don’t go to bed early, do you? What! So early? Come on! Just for tonight – one night is all I’m asking – stay up. We’ll have a nice looong chat…Say yes… Pleeeease!”

The metro halted. The doors of the metro slide open at every station on its way. They open. They close. Who knows how many such stories begin and end on the journey from HUDA City Center to Rajiv Chowk?

A sea of people flowed into the coach. Somehow, I managed to get off. The wave of humanity itself buffeted me towards the exit. Somewhere in that crush of bodies the ringtone called out a plaintive lament.

Paani da rang vekh ke,
Ankhiyan jo hanju rul de

Seeing the colour of water, tears roll down my eyes.
And what of the colour of relationships today? What of that?

Ask the metro.

END

VikyViky Arya is an advertising professional with more than 24 years experience in top agencies. She is a painter, illustrator and sculptor. The list of awards and accolades that have come to her is too long to mention here. She has also written three collections of poems: Canvas ( Rajkamal Prakashan), Dhoop ke rang ( Penguin), Banjare Khwab, (Yatra).