Shishir (Winter) 2019, Short Stories - Barbara Kumari




By Barbara Kumari


We begin in Bihar.


We begin as one might expect, in subtle shifts, weary in the night, in a place spinning forward at all angles and speeds, as a film played too many times. You see the village from a distance, taking in a dimensional fabric crimping and curling at supersonic speeds, the passage of carts, bringing the image closer to your eyes until you can see the rise and fall of bumps of the street, of hairline fractures in the walls, the red scarf of a figure below.


Sasaram on a Saturday evening.


You bring the woman into focus, up from where you cannot reach, cannot go until she is close enough for you to see the detail of her straight black pin against her hair. The sharpness of her nose, her cheeks severe in the darkness. You watch her from this plane, the stir of her eyes gazing up at you through the fog, through the density of the street. Her frown softening into a smile. This is a face you reconstruct, piece by piece, the sleight of her chin. The dimensions of her collapsing as she disappears through the door of the hut.


You follow her through the entryway, into a side room, a kitchen. She pauses, taking her time, smoking a cigar as she smiles through you. You are not to speak. This you understand instinctively, watching her sigh captioned in the fissures in her brow, the twist of her hands. Her crossed arms in the darkness. A tension evaporating in waves, dissipating freely and without shame on the surface of your bodies.


She crouches, her nightgown hiked halfway as she stoops over an open fire. She wears her hair over her face, her fingers trembling to position the tendrils, the height of her collar. You slow to let her pass through you, sending a shiver of wind through her greasy hair. It is impossible to say how long we have been watching her.


Time takes on the constitution of a chalk line smudged away by the air itself, the hours wielded by smoke as she strokes the the pot filled with batter, a dip and curve of light retracting across the hot plate at her feet. You circle her with a spin of your heels. See the color drain from her face as she glances directly at you now, the you that is the child at her feet, her gaze hovering in the faint scatter of light, trying to recall what she knew.


The end begins at nine thirteen p.m.


The end begins with her feet, the steady turning of her bruised heels and ankles, the tremble migrating up her leg to her knees. The shift in her eyes complete over the span of an hour. You shuffle behind her, a child with wet feet, threading your arms through a pale passage of smoke, under an open courtyard in the middle of the house, through the room-lets on each side until she places you on a chicken feed sack beside her.


It is this detail that pangs her with regret, she will later tell you, that she was never formally married, but sold, knowing no lineage. Her life but a free-floating speck with riches never to be seen again by her upon her husband’s death. Details that he had already taken up with his lawyer, the planning of his will and testament to his bloodline, though not to the servant he wed. Benefits to be bequeathed to the community, to individuals he had never been face-to-face with, only hoped, blindly, would carry out their duties faithfully in the wake of the boon, an anonymous donor by choice.


You make no sound as you fall asleep within her coat; she closes your eyes with her fingertips. We listen to the rustle of curtains, the patter of feet behind the doors. The train passing half a kilometer away. You cling to the edges of a memory, of ghosts. In your dreams, you’re chasing her on foot, climbing out of your skin through the filter of a thin velvet medium. Following her progress along the walls.


Following the origins of your Bhojpuri, of the Siddi. Remembering the faux leather interior of the taxi that brought you to the village, still damp with sweat, her arms as she mounts the stairs to scoop you inside.


When you wake, you look for her here, below the steps, along a spired edge of rails. She no longer insists you apologize as you slip past her, each of you sensing your torsos as an extension of each others’ flesh. She tells you of her sleep paralysis, her large hands. When she dreams that she has found a husband, not the wild ox crushing all circumstance and reason. Love is born of fire, she says, grown of roots that split and creep into the dark, feeding on the light. A dream, a love that you have yet to know. This is how she describes it, slow, in words meticulous, but impatient.


Your uncle was born in Sudan, she tells you, moving to Bihar, with those who lived on the outskirts of civilization, not so much from a desire for disaster but to escape. Your uncle in an internal refugee camp abiding by its own unwritten codes. A space that penned its own mores in the sand, in the blood of the terrorists, in the hearts of children scattered within. Taking on the fragments of a new world smattered with the remnants still fresh, of a generation before, of what was. A place of campfires and makeshift tents made of clothes, of tarp, of animal skin and boxes.


The refuse of the world washed up on the shore of the camp like garbage from the forbidden sea. Tokens, keepsakes of what was pilfered and pondered, without the knowledge of the inner workings of the beast who spewed it. They received only a trickle of information from the outside, through human pipelines. Those were the days when he first became rich, growing from a street stall of steaming rice into a restaurant empire.


She sifts the roti flour, the dough passing through her fingers, throwing the chaff into a cold draft. Kneading the flour into water and the water into the flour, pressing, pressing the dough against a thick stone. She rolls a flat roti, dipping the sides in raw flour before settling it on the hotplate, the dough expanding under the fire as she presses in with a scrap of saree.


Her name before, she tells you, is a combination of sounds that slip off the tongue. A Siddi, African, name, but that is all she recalls, sometimes catching a sliver of it in her memory, in dreams, when she hears the trains from beyond this world, the bass rattle of rails. Scanning a primitive collection of memories of her hometown of Rupsa, a city on the edge of the world.


She carves the route to Rupsa with her fingers, over the three hills and the fourth that was nearly a mountain but lost its resolution and now sinks further into the earth. This is an image taking its time to form, the route worked and prodded by the shade and motion of her fingers. She carves the mountains with her fingernails, the ranges and a deep valley inside filled with water. A range she once saw in a dream, turning it over so that you see all of its curves before placing it on the stove, covering your face with flour on each side with taps until you smile.


The fire returns to you here as a vast shaking of the soul, your body filled with a heat you scarcely recognize as you watch the roti rise, waiting for it to burst with some sickly pleasure, though it does not, only ripens brown before it’s settled one by one a stone, dozens of roti for there are three of you, all of you with stomachs that cannot be full, only satiated, quelled from that passion that rises from your bowels only to travel down and up again, the ghosts from within, with no other appetite but this.

July 5, 2009. 11 pm, 3 minutes and 4 seconds past the hour.


You track the faint trace of your uncle through the candle light, watching his shirt flap in the doorway, the curtains as he passes through the rooms. Stripping piece by piece on the ruined steps, where there is a silent, taciturn agreement on the terms for the the night, a little sound from the deep replacing the world, where you wake to the crackle of steel-hinged doors.


You watch Anju in the darkness, the line of her bra visible just above her gown, her thin limbs hunched and working the dough until there is no more dough, she assures you, her hands covered white, glowing in the light of the flame. You will remember her face, the line of her distinct, a line you will come to know as your own, placing a name, the Siddi people, a face to a thousand generations complete, arising with the slightest of variations, knowing each other, as deep as knowing goes. A Siddi will know a Siddi from across the sea and back, she tells you.


You measure the pulse of her steps, tracking the small woman with a sullen face, a tension that you cannot place passing between them into the darkness, behind the walls. The hours adopting a vacant quality as she falls asleep with her eyes open. Alive, but not.


The confusion of time will begin in a deeper place, surfacing amorphous and slow from your fatigue, first in your memory and then in your limbs. You stand in the doorway, walking forward, without a trace of reference. The hour slows, in some corner, stops. You hover at the periphery, knees folded, to watch your aunt and uncle slide, soundlessly, past each other, a single line going everywhere at once.


Anju’s thin gown tattered, her arms covered in little more than ribbons, carrying plastic bags bulging with cans to sell. Their voices a nameless piece of the collective, a single overlapping sound you can’t be sure is there.


The silence comes some time in the night, the residue of a heave as the roti collapses. You see it in her eyes first, the top edge of a knife hilt in her side pocket. The hours taking upon themselves their own sort of fiction, a darkness pocked with the freckled luminescence of fluorescent lights overhead. The weight of silence collecting in her bare arms and shoulders, her torso heaving, a beast resentful of its quarters. You nudge her limbs with your foot but her face is frozen, wary of stirring its own body to madness.


The child that she once bore was not large but made himself so, she tells you, born in this house, but died at your uncle’s hand, in a warm daze, called Pal. A dream. A boy born from their affairs with fate and hours in a window melting wax under a white-hot sun.


An old man at birth.


She removes your uncle’s sweaty shirt to rub his back, his chest with water from a jug she pulls from the table, pausing before running the rag over him. See his face shifting blue in the light, the swelling of a thought within, his eyes tracking a thin layer of sediment at the bottom of the roti bowl.


You track her steps with all the care of coincidence, pinpointing on the roti arbitrary destinations. Her face slackening then tightening, her figure funneling into the darkness. She leaves you in the kitchen, where you sleep to the vapors of coriander, tucking the conjoined voice under your skin after some hours, as something that cannot be heard.


You cannot say when she disappears, when your vision fades completely, when the world collapses in on itself. This is a place that never sleeps, the boundaries lost somewhere above and below, where you lose your patrol on the borders between here and there.


This is what you remember.


Your uncle’s scream is brief, his voice shrieking only a moment before slipping off. Your eyes quiver, the sweat collecting in rivulets, sliding down the curves of your wrists. Somewhere, Anju is coming into frame, pulling you into her arms with a bag over her shoulder, your bodies a small struggle of limbs.


She places her finger over your lips. See the rise and fall of her chest, what you recall from out there, from within the deep recesses of nothingness to return with her face, her name, a whiskey scent.


She whisks you past through the house and you catch your uncle through the curtain as he lands with his back twisted below, his neck curled between his arms. The blood spattered at the base of the skull, winding through the tight bundle of hair down his neck. His eyes are closed, his mouth ajar, a trickle of blood collecting at the corner of his lip, staining his teeth, dribbling down his chin as he glances up at you.


She turns the corner, drifting out of the door, her footsteps shaking the ground, the gate creaking with rust. You run until the soil becomes the gravel, becomes the paved road, feeling the tremor of her chest, her hands smelling of cumin as she tosses the bloody shirt down the steps.


You scan her face as though you cannot remember her, though you recognize her somehow. Your eyes fading into the shadow of her arms, her neck. The shape of a taxi in the moonlight, the eddies of flashlight stirring from all around as you wait for the trembling of her hands to cease.




She waves the taxi down, her hands slapping a rhythm against the side of the car, wiping a smudge of blood from her hand. You slip inside, listening to the sparse chatter, staring out with no thought other than of the vibration of the seat beneath you, removing your sandals to relieve your swollen feet. The chill of the floorboard shooting through your limbs, embalming your body complete in an odd sort of pleasure.


Somehow, you’ve been sleeping when you reach Rupsa. Hear the windows crackling as you enter the street, meeting first the uptake in human traffic, in cars, heading for shops lining the beginning of the businesses, the commercial heart of the city. Rupsa meets you first in the float of jazz, bars beneath boasting of the oldest jazz acts in the city.


The street itself taking on a murky quality against the hill, the shopfronts built into the earth, the tapestry of bricks alternating little style or color. The architecture a throw and catch into the darkness, trajecting back into a the trail of Chinese lanterns. You hear a sound forged of the stillness, a linger unperturbed, jazz driving you through the wires overhead. Stunned notes teasing a sass ravished for minutes, hours.


You remember yourself from away, remembering, though you were forgotten. Her hand grips a wet bag, tightly, then softly, in turn. Her lower lip quivering as she studies you from above, opening your mouth with the tips of her fingers.


“I don’t remember anymore.” She says.


“What?” You ask.


“Anything.” She says.




Barbara Kumari has Master's degrees in Psychology and Family and Human Development. She likes to write human intrest driven fiction.


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