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Authors: Anita Rau Badami

Tags: #Historical

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BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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But there was no help. Wake up, wake up. This was her fate, written on her forehead by the gods, she thought unhappily, rolling to a sitting position and wiping her wet face with the end of her faded kameez—it was her
wretched
fate to have to wake up and dip her hands in piles of excrement. Every morning since she was four years old, she had had to start the day by picking up the hot, stinking shit that the family’s two cows dropped in the courtyard. Then she had to make balls of the disgusting mess and pat them into circular cakes against the walls of their house. And the smell—how the smell corrupted her waking hours and infected her dreams and ruined even her meals. This was what Sharan resented most of all, for she loved eating. Her joy at the sight of food turned even the simplest combination of rice and dal into a feast, but when she raised a morsel of food to her mouth she could only smell the overpowering odour that had written itself into her skin, instead of the fragrances of turmeric, fresh rice, butter melting on hot phulkas, green chillies frying. She wished then, with all her heart, that she, like the Arabian princess in a tale the wandering storyteller had told her, might wake up and find herself in a different home altogether, carried there by the jinns in the service of a handsome prince.

Later, in Vancouver, when she had lost her past, she would feel shame at her thoughtless girl’s wish. She yearned for the return of that time when her family was entire—her mother squatting by the clay stove, the harsh angles and hollows of her exhausted face exaggerated by the glow from the fire, her father with his distant eyes,
and most of all Kanwar, her sturdy, loving, lost sister. Lost, because she, Sharanjeet Kaur, had been greedy for something much larger than the world she inhabited.

But on that day in 1928, the six-year-old child thought only of how much she loathed the grating, ever-present irritation in her mother’s voice, the heat, the dust, the smallness of Panjaur, the seemingly endless quantities of shit that their bony cows produced morning, noon and night, her two faded salwar kameez suits, Kanwar’s silent acceptance of everything that was thrown at her, and most of all the fact that she had no soap with which to wash her hands after working on the dung.

She dragged her feet out into the morning and splashed water from a bucket on her face. Having cleared the sleep from her eyes, she chewed the bitter neem twig that served as a toothbrush and stared out at the fields, which were separated from the house by a dusty lane and a canal of brackish water. She could see small splashes of colour where villagers were working in their fields or crossing them, carrying bundles of laundry, to reach the river. A child screamed from one of the nearby houses. Perhaps it was Jeeti’s brother, a spoilt child who howled for any reason and had to be regularly appeased with a treat.

A cool wind blew in from the west and tore through the tall stands of sugar cane, making them bend and shudder in their shadowy depths. Another month and the Diwali festival would be here, Sharan remembered with a spark of pleasure. She ran out of the yard to the edge of the field, where a holy stone, believed by the Hindus of the village to harbour a powerful goddess, reared out of the earth. It
was smeared with turmeric and vermilion, and someone had scattered flowers around it. She touched the stone, earnestly whispering a prayer, as she and Jeeti often did together. As a Sikh she already knew she was not supposed to worship idols and stones and pictures, but her mother had said that gods from all religions were holy and it would not hurt to pray to them now and again. Sharan begged the stone for a good harvest so that there would be money left over after paying off the moneylender and she would get a new set of bangles—red with gold stripes—just like Jeeti’s. She trailed back into the yard, chewing discontentedly on the neem twig, moments before her mother emerged from the house. Gurpreet stood at the door, arms akimbo, glaring at her younger daughter. “What are you doing for so long? Your teeth will fall out if you rub them so hard!” She pointed her chin at Kanwar, who had also woken before dawn and was now in the yard shaking a soopa of rice to remove the chaff from the grain. “Look at her, how much she helps me! And you …”

Kanwar, who never did anything to stir her mother’s anger, waited until Gurpreet had retreated into the house before grabbing her sister around the waist and hugging her close. Tall and strong for her fourteen years, she lifted Sharan in the air, swung her around, set her down and tickled her vigorously. “Gudh-gudhee, gudh-gudhee!” she said, using the nonsense words she reserved for Sharan, prodding her waist, her round belly, the hollows under the childish arms. “Let’s see a smile! Khillee-khillee!”

Sharan wriggled away, refusing to humour Kanwar although it was hard not to respond to her tickling fingers.
Still, it was necessary to let the world know how resentful she was, so she shrugged out of Kanwar’s embrace and, picking up a basket as large as herself, walked off to where the cows were tethered. She scooped the slimy dung into the basket and took it to the side of the house where the sun shone all morning. Her father had already dragged his cot there and lay motionless, ignoring the hubhub around him. Sharan squatted beside the sun-stroked wall of the house and began to slap small balls of the dung against it, quickly patting each into a disc with her fingers.

Soon Gurpreet and Kanwar left the house with a jangle of glass bracelets, each bearing a bundle of laundry on her head. Sharan watched them make their way through the rattling green of the sugar cane fields until they disappeared from sight.

She worked steadily until the wall was covered with even dung pats like so many rough quarter plates. Then she put the basket away in a corner and washed her hands hard, wishing she had something other than wood ash with which to scrub. She longed to run down the road to Jeeti’s house and beg for a small smear of that most coveted of belongings—a bar of scented soap. Surely Jeeti would not begrudge her a tiny bubble or two?

Sharan glanced at her father. His eyes were shut, and his breathing had evolved into a series of snores, which meant that he was fast asleep. She could run to Jeeti’s place and be back before he had finished a snore. She tiptoed close to the cot and peered at the hairy face with its unkempt beard and moustache, slack mouth, long thin nose and narrow forehead. His hair, which like that of the
other Sikh men in the village was long and uncut, was loosely knotted on top of his head. His knobbly hands were clasped on his oil-slicked chest, which rose and fell to the rhythm of his breathing. Sharan wondered why her father slept all day long. As far as she knew, he was not a sick man. He did not constantly cough or wheeze or complain of aches like the grandfathers who gathered like a flock of cadaverous old crows around the banyan tree in the centre of the village every afternoon. Harjot Singh’s limbs were intact and he ate like a buffalo. But he rarely spoke, never left the house and always looked lost, as if there was something he had forgotten and he could only lie helplessly on the cot, staring off into the distance, until it to came back to him. Sometimes it seemed to Sharan that her father was not really there at all, that he was just a shadow. It would take many years for her to understand that Harjot Singh was
not
in fact there. In his mind he was continents away, in a green and blue city called Vancouver, which he had once seen from the deck of a ship—a place that had turned him away from its shores as if he were a pariah dog.

Her breath feathered across her father’s face and stirred the wispy hairs of his long beard. Harjot Singh opened his eyes and caught Sharan in his gaze. He sat up, yawned mightily and drew her down on his lap.

“Are you done, child?” he asked, one thin hand caressing her head, smoothing the tendrils that had escaped from the thick braids that hung down each side of her face. “Do you want to eat your food now? What has your mother made for us, hmmm?”

Sharan gave him a sideways look, her chocolate eyes calculating. “Bappa, can I go to Jeeti’s house? I will come back very quickly. In this many minutes.” She held up five small fingers and tilted her head in a way she hoped was disarming.

But Harjot’s gaze skimmed past her face, out of the narrow door that framed the stark sky above and the dust-strip of a road below, past the wave of sugar cane and the stretching mustard fields so golden bright it seemed the sun had turned liquid and poured across the earth, across the familiar landscape to that unknown distant land that was lodged within him like a thorn.

Then he said sadly, as if his daughter had not spoken at all, “I was
almost
there, putthar. Like Sher Singh, I could have lived in Canada and become rich.” His gaze returned to rest on his daughter’s pleading face. “If they had allowed us to stay there, you know what your life would have been like?”

Sharan sighed. “No, Bappa,” she said, and resigned herself to listening to the story that had begun years before she was born. She hated this ship that had caused the disappointment clogging her father’s heart, that had snatched his dreams away and turned him into a barren-eyed man with no desire to do more than lie on his cot.

“If they had allowed me to get off the
Komagata Maru,
you and your mother and your sister would now be living like queens. We too would have had a pukka house with five rooms, three cows, and twenty chickens …”

Six-year-old Sharan looked into his sombre black eyes and listened to his stories of a mighty ocean, of strange fish
that flew out of its rolling depths to catch the sun’s rays, of dark forests of trees that grew tall and pointed like great arrows. She wondered at his tales of the unimaginably distant lands he had crossed to reach the place he called Canada. She marvelled at the thought of the bullock carts, buses, trains and ships that had carried him there. She had never stepped outside the close circle of her village, did not know what lay beyond the fields spreading out from the dust road outside their home, while her father had been to places like Amritsar, Delhi, Calcutta, Singapore. And Hong Kong! Where on earth was this strange place that sounded like the mournful call of geese flying over fields? She listened open-mouthed even though she had heard the story a hundred times already, her stinking hands a mere memory until, with a jangle of bracelets, her mother returned balancing one bundle of clean laundry on her head and holding another on her hip like a baby. She dropped her load on the ground and looked tiredly at her husband and daughter relaxing in the shade.

“Amma, I finished my work and Bappa was telling me about his dreams,” Sharan said quickly, hoping to avert the descent of her mother’s hard hand on her legs and back. She thought guiltily of the dirty basket that she should have washed as soon as she was done with the cow dung.

“Dreams?” Gurpreet said sardonically. “How nice it would be if these dreams could be harvested and sold to pay off our debts to that moneylender.”

Sometime that night, while the wind hissed through the village and the cane shook its long fingers at the dark sky
and a bird called in warning from the tamarind tree, Harjot Singh finally left the safety of his string cot and his home and walked away. His family awaited his return for weeks, unwilling to believe that the man who had been a fixture on that cot was no longer there. No one in the village had seen him go. The pariah dogs that roamed the dusty roads had not warned of his departure with a volley of barks. Not even Dhanna, the halfwit who was in love with the moon and stayed up all night bawling out songs to it, not even he had seen Harjot leave.

When there was no news for a month, rumours began to circulate: Harjot Singh had been carried away by evil spirits; he had run off with the woman who did the juggling act with the travelling nautanki troupe; he had gone to join the struggle against the British, drawn like increasing numbers of young men in villages and towns across India by the insistent drumbeat of the independence movement. This last story was the one that Gurpreet decided to keep. After all, she told her neighbours and her daughters, Harjot Singh
had
been resentful about his treatment at the hands of the goras who ruled the country, he had never understood why he and the other passengers on the
Komagata Maru,
every one of them British citizens, had been refused entry to Canada and the ship turned back. So Gurpreet informed the women at the village well and the other nosy parkers who came with avid eyes and false sympathy to her door that her husband, the man who for years had clung to his cot and to his silence, had been transformed into a fiery revolutionary and was roaming the country. Now, every time news arrived in
Panjaur of a railway line that had been blown up or a bridge that had been sabotaged in this or that part of the country, Gurpreet spread the rumour that Harjot was one of the perpetrators. In time, and with frequent telling, everyone, Sharan included, came to believe that he had indeed joined the revolutionaries—a hero if he was alive, a martyr if he had died. She was a pragmatic woman. She had two daughters to marry off, and unsavoury stories about evil spirits or an elopement with nautanki dancers were not needed.

But in the privacy of their home, Gurpreet cursed her husband for leaving so abruptly. She shook her fist at fate for bestowing such a man on her, and at the heavens for not sending enough rain to feed her fields. She yelled at her daughters for everything else. Her deepest ire, however, she reserved for Sher Singh, the man who had introduced the irresponsibility of dreams into Harjot’s life.

In 1906, fed up with the capriciousness of the monsoons, Sher Singh had gone in search of wealth to the western shore of Canada. From the letters and money orders he sent every month to his wife, Soniya, the villagers assumed that he was doing very well there. Over the years the number of his cattle increased from one cow to three, his house was rebuilt with brick and mortar instead of mud and had a tin roof instead of thatch, and on festival days the aroma of expensive basmati rice wafted out from his kitchen. Sometimes he sent parcels of strange and wonderful things like soap and chocolate, paper and pencils, and socks that looked small and wrinkled but that stretched like pale skin all the way to Soniya’s crotch. She
wore these socks even in the middle of summer, rolling her salwar up to her knees so that the other women could see her smooth, peach-coloured legs and die of envy.

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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