Tuesday 10 August 2021

Rose Garg, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

One Minute Baby

“Get up and move. Follow the line. Taratari!” commanded a raspy voice close to my ear. I turned my head and immediately knew it was a bad decision. His breath came at me, a revolting mix of tobacco and staleness. I jolted up from the middle berth of the oscillating train in repulsion, wondering who this stranger was and what right he had to be ordering us around. Unconsciously I began gathering my belongings, responding to the urgency in his voice.

We had departed from Jalpaiguri last evening, sometime after four. Two bogeys of the train were filled with enthusiastic boarders from Kalimpong, a beautiful hill station in West Bengal. We were on our way home for the mandatory three month winter holidays that would end at the beginning of March, the following year.

It was past midnight, probably around two. The younger children were still trying to shake off the slumber; the pandemonium of the world failing to intrude their dreams. I was a little curious as to where we had reached, but quite certain we had not passed the Farakka Barrage. It was a spot which always gave me the shivers for the gory description attached to it. In the past we had been told by our seniors that they had often seen bodies floating on the water whenever the train went over that long stretch. My morbid curiosity was piqued, and in the last the two years whenever we made the journey, I had deliberately stayed awake to see it. To my disappointment, I had not witnessed anything extraordinary, save the black water between lonely concrete columns. I don’t know how the tale had been conjured up but it was one that seemed to be passed down through the generations.

Even years later, with access to the internet, it is not a story I would like to unravel, to know the truth. I know in my heart that every story has some vein of truth to it. Who knows what had happened in that very spot that had left its scar on someone’s mind!

Nobody had a clue why we were all being pushed out of the train at this hour. It was odd but acceptable. Children are exploitable like that. You give them orders and they blindly obey. My school mates were scurrying between the dimly lit berths like toys that had come alive and moved about with vacant glassy eyes.

Soon we had organized ourselves into a single moving file. I poked my head out of the line, and confirmed that we were getting off the train. The children nearest the door were disappearing into the darkness, reminding me of the Pink Floyd video, ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’ It was the early hours of 7th December 1992, when we disembarked from that train, little knowing about the horrors that were to unfold over the following days. We descended onto the tracks with the help of the school staff, who were accompanying us. I later learned that the train had been stopped by the locals a kilometer before the Malda Town station. We were eight hours away from our destination, Calcutta, and had not passed Farakka.

It was dark and yet quite warm for December. The plains unlike the mountains always felt warmer, even during winter. A stench of urine assaulted my nostrils from the ‘pissed upon iron tracks,’ and I involuntarily took a step backward, but was goaded on. I could feel my heart begin a soft gallop as we plodded along towards the unknown; a group of children aged between seven and sixteen walking along the train route, like comfortable scarecrows. Our hollow pink cheeks, pocketing gusts of sporadic winds. We climbed onto the platform and gathered near the ticketing room where we were greeted by the cheerful Stationmaster.

“Good morning...come, come,” he said, as if he was an old friend. He then pulled the schoolmaster Mr. Andrews aside and spoke to him in hushed tones.

A fleeting look of concern passed over Mr. Andrews but it was gone before anyone could notice. “Come on children this is just an unforeseen stop. Everything is fine. Please follow me.” The stationmaster led us through a dimly lit walled lane, pasted with cow-dung patties. In the eerie silence of the night his rubber slippers made an annoying clicking sound which was punctuated by the intermittent barks of mongrels nearby. Thankfully our destination was a short distance away. None of us wanted to walk too much in this in-between port of call that nobody had heard of.

We were soon ushered into a small canteen and the first thing I noticed was that it was filled with men. Like a gentleman’s club, only, nobody looked like gentlemen to me. They were shabbily dressed, and spoke in a coarse Bengali dialect. This was probably where the train drivers and staff ate their meals, and rested, before getting back to their strenuous jobs. Their smiles looked exaggerated, like clowns hiding frowns. The older boys and girls rushed to sit on the long wooden benches nearby. It was quite evident that I would be standing, so I took my place near the cashier counter, slouching disinterestedly, with my back against the wall. This was not the adventure I was hoping for.

I began to survey my surroundings.

The place had the feel of an old garage with oil stained walls and streaks of a leaking alabaster roof running down the length of the walls, forming shapes that looked like human faces. I turned my gaze away, suddenly aware that somebody was staring at me. It was Rana, a senior.

Rana was the picture of boyhood with his deep dimples and droopy eyes. At 11, I was at the peak of girly awkwardness; always self-conscious, always imagining that everyone was looking at me. Sometimes elated, but mostly shy. I turned towards Sudha to steady my thumping heart. She was not my best friend, but we were from the same class.

“How long are we going to be standing here?” I asked her.

She shook her head and let out a long exaggerated sigh as if she had been contemplating the very same question.

“Gonna find the loo. Wanna come?” I asked again, hoping for an affirmative reply. In boarding school, girls did everything in twos. We walked for our meals to the Central Kitchen in twos, excused ourselves to go to the restroom during class in twos, and relished the local alu

thupka and wai wai, in twos. Our forays down the khudsides to search for ferns that made temporary white tattoos were also done in twos! So it was but natural that I sought out someone’s company to go to the washroom.

“Naaaah, you go,” she said.

I could tell she was groggy like everyone else. Some kids dozed off with their heads resting on the table.

“Watch my stuff ok?” I nudged gently at her shoulder and got up to leave. I looked at Mr. Andrews. Should I ask him permission? He was talking animatedly to Miss Jonnah, another teacher. What if he said no? My stomach was aching, from holding it and I decided it was pointless asking for permission because I just had to go.

I walked a few steps towards the man behind the counter. “Dada, ladies bathroom ta kothai?” I said in a whisper.

He did not look at me, but replied disinterestedly “Baire, Left ey.” He was probably cursing the battalion of children that had made him work overtime today.

Outside the air was chill, but it carried with it the malodorous aroma of leftover curry that had found a way to escape the overcrowded room. I hurried through the walkway about 80 feet away. I know, because I used to be a competitive runner.

The ‘bathroom’ was a 3/4feet cemented enclosure, with a tiny hole of a window that had a surprisingly lovely view of the empyrean above. The dull yellow walls were accentuated by the light of the dim bulb that barely glowed. I was prepared for the worst, but surprisingly the commode was cleaner than most public restrooms I had been to. The rickety tin door made a rattling sound when I entered.

I did what I had come to do in peace, without anyone furiously knocking on the door, like I was used to at school. As I began to pull up my green corduroy pants, I heard the crunch of gravel outside. Someone was waiting their turn. Quietly. I shrugged off the panic that I felt instantaneously, and came out like I normally would, as if everything was fine. When I saw him, my heart skipped a beat, but before I could beat a hasty retreat he blocked my path. I had never experienced brute force in any form before, so it took me by complete surprise when he shoved me back inside with his big hands. He didn’t give me a chance, like a bear going for the kill he mauled me. Before I could figure out what was really happening, he was done. He never looked into my eyes, not once.

The things men do to little girls! Imagine the worst, and multiply it by one million, and you will still not be close to what I went through. In that short moment of horror I was pretty sure I had already counted half the celestial bodies in the sky; praying that one would fall to the earth at that very moment. He left me alone in that godforsaken bathroom and disappeared like a ghastly winged odor. The door rattled noisily, assuring me it was no dream. I fixed my clothes back on, trembling.

I first felt numb with pain, shame and then some more; so dirty, like I needed to have a hot scalding bath to wash away the sins that felt like they were tattooed onto my skin. In the stunned silence I contemplated what to do next. My mind screamed to shout out, shame him just like I had been shamed, but my heart told me to be silent; pretend that nothing had happened. There was a fleeting relief in that thought; no one would look accusingly at me or pity me. I felt better, but only for the shortest of time.

The strangest notion that cropped up as I gently pushed the cheap metal door shut, was that maybe he loved me. That, maybe I had won first place with him. I think at some point, the 11 year old in me wanted to cry, but how could I? It was partially my fault. I could have screamed. I should have begged Sudha to accompany me. I could have done...something.

I walked the distance to the canteen in painful shame. Slowly. There was no rush. A million thoughts filled my head spilling over like an overfull septic tank, poisonous vapor seeping into the recesses of my being. The darkness around me was comforting.

I knew at that moment, that I had grown up, that my long awaited crossover to womanhood, my periods, did not matter anymore.

I retraced my way back to life in the Canteen, amidst the fading stars. Sudha noticed me enter, and motioned with her eyes that everything was okay. I had not been missed.

I went close to her, then sat down and said, “Don’t go to the loo, it's filthy!” Thankfully she missed the fear in my tone.

“If you’re hungry, they are offering everyone egg curry and rice,” she said. My insides turned a somersault. I felt like throwing up.

“No. I don’t want to eat here.” I murmured, afraid she would read between the lines, so I said quickly “When are we going to leave? Why the delay?”

“People are fighting,” she replied and began rummaging in her bag.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know... I heard Sir, talking to the seniors outside.”

It meant that he was still outside. I felt giddy. Is this what love was supposed to feel like? I battled with my own strange suppositions, quietly.

“I hope we can leave soon.” I replied coolly.

Then the unthinkable happened. Around 11-15 men barged into the Canteen. They were shouting anti-communal slogans, like my mama’s record player. A far cry from the Mahatma’s vision of an ideal society. Their eyes were frenzied with hate for everything in front of them and with love for

nothing inside. The leader, a pockmarked faced man, wearing a green bandana tied around his head, quickly scanned all of us. When his tiny brain could not find what he was looking for, he bellowed.

“How many here are Mohammedan?” He quickly added. “Don’t worry, we are just sorting people, for their own safety.”

Nobody answered.

Unexpectedly, the sound of blows and cries filled the canteen. My insides curdled with fear as realization dawned that some of our people outside, were being beaten, by the thugs. They began to plead with the violent gang to stop. I noticed some of the younger children cowering in one corner of the room. I had been exposed to my fair share of ‘boys’ fights at school, but had never

heard sounds of men crying like I heard that night. A volcano of and fear and vomit threatened to spew forth. I reached for Sudha’s hand. The hooligans then brought Mr. Andrews inside. They dragged him, and I noticed that his face was bloody and his nose had been punched until it resembled a soggy tomato. Someone pushed him again. His eyes gathered all the strength and self-respect he had left, and it now stared at them, defiantly. Another man pulled him to his feet, tearing his collar, soaked in blood. In the silence, the rasp of the wet fabric ripping felt like sandpaper scraping ice.

Miss Jonnah ran towards them, begging for mercy.

“What are you doing? He is probably your father’s age. A well respected teacher.” The champion of the idiots shrugged, and spoke. It was clear from the expression in his crazed eyes that he expected everyone to listen, after the fear he had invoked.

“He tried to act beshi smart. Tried to fool us.”

Miss Jonnah’s voice dimmed. She knew it was futile to implore mercy from a bully. “These children are going home after nine months in boarding school. Come on dada, let us all go in peace.”

“So their parents don’t really want them do they? Isn’t that why they send them away?” he laughed aloud, and his buffoon gang followed suit. Like a pack of hyenas.

The fear that had invaded me earlier was suddenly gone with his deliberate jibe. I knew I could not sit in silence, doing nothing. At that moment, I saw my opening like a ray of light, in the bleak midwinter.

“Dada, sotthi, you are right. Everyone does forget us.”

All heads in the room turned towards me. Why did I have to speak? Why couldn’t I have just kept my mouth shut? I felt like a target, and for a brief moment the horror of fifteen minutes ago had been relegated to the background. This was easier to deal with than my morbid thoughts. “What’s your name?” he looked at me. His eyebrows were raised, almost touching his hairline. He was clearly shocked at me cutting in.


“Accha, like the flower.”

“Yes.” I answered, my eyes deliberately lingering coyly on him. I had been running with the wolves since my father left us. Mama had been in her late twenties, and I was two. The only way I knew how to cope with danger was to get out of it. The sooner the better.

Before he could respond, I continued.

“Most of us either have one parent, and some of us have none. They leave us in the boarding school because they cannot take care of us. We go home once a year. I feel small in a big school. My heart pounds when I hear the sound of a jeep pulling up at the school gates. I cross my fingers, hoping it’s my mum but it never is. I cry myself to sleep almost every night. Then I dream I am at home, and wake up to find it untrue. I’ve been told that a hard life is part of growing up, but growing up is all I’ve done since I learned to walk. I notice that the older people are still walking, and slowly. All of us here have similar stories, although we are too ashamed to admit it.”

I walked closer towards their bandana leader. I stood at an arm’s length from him and talked directly into his face. My emotions were getting the better of me.

“You want Mohammedan kids? Take me first, because we are all the same.” I knew I was crossing a deep chasm but I had to take a chance. After what I’d just endured, this clown was nothing. I was already dead inside, numb with nothingness.

“How can anything else be worse than what most of us have been through? Do what you need to, but do not mistake our silence, for fear. Dada.”

There was no way I would ever allow anyone to violate me again. Standing up to this scoundrel, had helped me find my strength. My cheeks were flushed and I had tears threatening to spill any second. Pin drop silence ensued. Nobody dared interrupt a 11 year old’s monologue. Most of what I said was true, although I denied it later. I looked at the faces in the room. I could feel their course through my blood. My outburst had given Mr. Andrews the douse of courage he needed.

“Please leave! All of you. You’ve scared the children enough. Get out now!” a slightly hysterical Mr. Andrews ordered the hooligans.

They shook their heads restlessly and surprisingly left without another word. Mr. Andrews came closer and reached out to touch my arm. I instantly recoiled. It felt like the heat of a thousand fires as another touch came to my mind. I wanted to dive into the ocean and feel the cool water on my skin. The only place in the world that understood loneliness. I thought of mama and me walking on the beach, the sound of waves and the calls of birds filling

the salty air. That memory helped calm my nerves.

Everyone started clapping and I knew it was mostly for me. I noticed Rana looking at me, but I turned away and began to walk towards my green backpack. Miss Jonnah came up to me and hugged me tightly.

“You saved us all, Jasmine. I am so grateful. Where did you learn to be so brave my girl?” I could smell mint on her breath as the tears openly rolled down her freckled cheeks. I looked at her and nodded. I wondered for a second if I should tell her exactly how I’d found my strength. I desperately wanted to, but by the time I could find the words, she was gone. I noticed she was rounding up the children to get ready to leave. Nobody wanted to stay in this sulfurous town a minute longer than necessary.

The dawn was breaking when I left the town’s railway canteen with Sudha holding my arm. The seniors had formed two rows and they let us walk out first. They clapped thunderously as we walked out of that hell. Some of their faces were battered. I smiled, but it was hard to maintain a a smile on my face all the time. I clasped my bag tightly in front of me. I could not wait to get home, to get rid of all the weight I was carrying on my little shoulders.

The train chugged out just as the sun began to rise. The silence in the train was quite deafening as almost everyone fell asleep. I preferred the noise to this solitude. It helped drown out my thoughts. I knew sleep would be a distant luxury for me for the next few days, or was it months?

After forty minutes the train slowed down, and began to mosey across the Ganges. I sat by the window and observed the Farraka Barrage. I counted the first 48 gates, then stopped and turned my gaze swiftly to another spot. I was distracted by the glitter of the sun on the tranquil waters on the eastern bank. I turned away from its brilliance, and looked around me. My bogey companions were all fast asleep. When I looked at the river again, I decided it looked better with the lights on. In the dark of the night, the cool river looked menacing, carrying a stench of fear that would be passed from generation to generation.

A train from the opposite direction passed by, interrupting my train of thought. I found solace in the noise. I stretched my feet out on the berth, and took off my shoes. I allowed myself to relax a little, but as I stretched out on the bunk, the aroma of egg curry came wafting through the air.

1 comment:

  1. Superbly written.. I was also there.thanx to rose for bringing back the whole scene alive again..
    No one else could have written it better.. Rose is an amazing writter.. hats off