Wednesday, 7 June 2017

And I Woke And Found Me Here

Oh, Jegal, Jegal. My heart sings your name. Jegal, my love, I can hardly bear to be a moment away from you.

I know it isn’t really far away. If I turn to look down the slope, I can see our cottage, down below. Not so long ago, it would have been my cottage, mine alone – and now it’s ours. And if you would only accept it, it would be yours, all yours. No, it is not far away, but even a moment away from you pulls at my heart as though with claws. The only thing that makes my work here bearable is the anticipation of being with you again.

My hands scrabble among the bushes, gathering berries with unwonted clumsiness. Once, they’d have flickered from twig to twig, deftly avoiding the thorns; but now my haste makes me clumsy, and the red of crushed berries on my skin mixes with the smeared red of my blood.

No matter, my love. A few drops of blood are nothing compared to the torrents that gush through my veins, singing of you, only you.

I know it isn’t much of a cottage. It never was much of a cottage, even when my silly and clumsy hands weren’t all that were trying to keep it in some kind of repair, as it is now. Oh, I know what you would say – that my hands were beautiful and wonderful – but I know the truth. I have tried my best with them, and the result shows clearly in the cottage now.

It was my father who built it, when we fled from our home in the city – that city which is now cinder and stone. I have been told the tale often enough to have almost seen it with my own eyes. We fled, my parents and I, leaving everything we’d owned behind, as howling mobs stormed through the streets and the flames rose in the sky. We had fled until we could flee no more, until my mother collapsed in spasms of agony that threatened to tear her apart, until I pushed my way into the world from between her bloodstained thighs.

My father, that gentle teacher and poet who had never even put up a shelf in his life, had to make a shelter for us, for clearly we could go no further until my mother was able to travel. And so he piled stone on stone, and pushed mud in between them, as he’d read; and for a roof he gathered wood and leaves and grass, and made a thatch. It did not then matter, for it was only a temporary shelter, until my mother could travel again.

But time passed, and the year grew from spring to summer towards winter, and my mother was no better. And so my father had to build up the walls thicker, and get more wood, and thatch, and make it a proper place to winter a sick woman and a baby. And so the winter passed, and the next year, and he built up the crude shelter, learning from his mistakes. It never was a great cottage, but by the second winter it was a cottage, and not just a hovel and shelter from the howling winter winds.

And the year after that my mother died.

I could show you her grave, my love, but I think it would distress you, and I would tear out my own heart rather than give you a moment of sorrow. My mother died, and with her something died, I think, in my father. I don’t, of course, remember anything from that time, but as I grew older I never saw him without a shadow in his eyes. Even as he sat on that rock there, watching me run through the grass, he would never laugh. The most I could ever coax out of him was a moment’s smile.

Of course we went no further. You can well understand, can’t you, that my father did not wish to leave the spot where his wife had died? Besides, it is a good spot, my love; safe and protected, as you yourself have found. No enemies will ever follow us here.

Oh, my father did not intend that we should stay here forever. When I was old enough, he told me often, when my feet itched to walk to new lands, we would move on. We would go where it was safe and there was no war or turmoil. And sometimes he would lead me by the hand and we would climb to the tops of these peaks, and look out on to the plain. And sometimes we would see the smoke of burning towns in the distance; and after a while my father would sigh deeply, and lead me back down again.

And so the years passed, and I grew towards womanhood. And as I did, my father, imperceptibly, grew old too, though neither of us spoke of it. For all he and I acknowledged, every day we spent here would be the last; tomorrow, things would be better, and we’d leave in the morning.

And one day, quite simply and without a fuss, he died.

His grave is here, too, beside that of my mother. It is not so well dug, for though I did the best I could I could not even equal my father’s efforts, and in these few years it has almost merged back into the soil again. I could show it to you, but I will not, for fear that those lovely dark eyes of yours would brim over with sorrow. As I have told you so many times, I wish you no sorrow.

After my father died, I stayed here. I had no wish to go further. This valley, these hills, were all I knew, and from what my father had told me I understood that the world outside was ugly as the pillars of smoke rising from the dun-brown plains. I would spend my life alone here, reading the few books my father had salvaged, I decided; and I would only need my own company, which was fine with me, because I was the only one I had left.

I hadn’t met you then; I had no idea then of the stupendous power of love.

I still remember the instant when I first laid eyes on you; I will always remember it. The previous night the sky over the plain had glowed red where it showed above the mountains, and when I went out in the morning, I saw smoke drifting over the peaks. So, for the first time after my father died, I had drawn on my thick boots and clambered up the rocky slopes towards the peaks, from where I might look down on the plain.

I never got there.

I remember hearing you before I saw you. You were gasping, exhausted, drawing in air like a wounded animal chased by hunters. And you were wounded and chased by hunters, though I did not know it yet.

I saw the hunters first; early morning sunlight glittering on spear blades and helmets. I did not know who they were, and I did not need to know. My father had told me enough about spears and helmets to make sure I would stay away from them both.

So I crouched behind a rock, hoping they would not look up and see me, hoping they would not come further and find the cottage, hoping your gasping for air would not carry to them. Oh, my love, I hated and feared your gasping for breath then! I wished it would be silenced, so I would not have to listen to it anymore.

It was when they’d turned away that I saw you. You were pulling yourself along the slope, your blood painting the rock, dripping from your poor abraded fingers. I waited where I was, watching you crawl closer, until I found that you had no spear or helmet and thus might be safe to approach. It was only when I came up to you that I realised that the blood was not only from your fingers, and only later did I find the wound in your side.

By then, though, I’d already fallen hopelessly, endlessly in love.

My darling, Jegal. Do you realise, can you ever realise, how I had been until I met you? I had never even seen a man but my father; and not a human being except him and my mother, who had died before I was old enough to remember. And here you were, helpless and hurt, for me to take care of; how could I not have fallen in love?
You know as well as I do how I carried you back home, and how I nursed you; day and night I sat beside you, tending your wound, feeding you, putting wet cloths on your head as you burned with fever. It was in your fevered muttering that I first learnt your name, and I repeated it to myself a hundred times, a thousand.

And slowly, my love, slowly, the fever went, the wound stopped bleeding, and one day you were healed at last. And we both knew then – you did not have to tell me – that you were with me to stay, that you would never leave.

My heart stopped when you looked at me. Even now, when your eyes fall on me, the breath catches in my throat and my heart misses a beat.

By that time it was winter and the stones were splitting with the cold, and I held you through the long nights. I had, of course, never touched a man that way before. I had hardly known the touch of another human being at all; my father could barely bring himself to touch me when I was sick; I reminded him too much of my mother. By the time spring came around at last, my love, I could barely let you out of my sight, even for a moment. I grudged the hours of sleep that took me from you.

I spoke to you and you listened. I had to teach myself to speak again, almost; but you did not mind. You were not like my father; no matter how much I chattered to you, no matter what I talked about, not once did you tell me to be silent. Not once, for a single moment, did you refuse to listen to me.

And through all the winter you smiled. You were not a moment without smiling. I would wake up in the morning and you were smiling at me; your smile was the last thing I would see before the dark tides of sleep bore me away every night.

And so the days grew longer and warmer, and for the first time in all the years since my father’s death I felt free to laugh and chatter to you, and glory in your smile. I told myself it would never end, and I was almost right. But one day they came.

They came looking for you, the men with the spears and the shining helmets. It was you they wanted, though I do not know why. They had spent the long and weary winter searching for you, but they hadn’t found you anywhere they looked. So they were looking for you where they hadn’t looked before.

I persuaded them that they would have to look elsewhere. They were not happy, but they were in a hurry, and they did not tarry long; besides, they seemed frightened for some reason. Perhaps they thought I was a witch; perhaps they had something else to be afraid of. I stood on the slope, here, watching them leave. By the time I saw the last of them, they were almost fleeing.  And then I went down to you, and held you in my arms, and murmured words of comfort to you.

The berries are gathered. It is getting cold again; the days are getting shorter. I think I will get some wood now, before going down to the cottage, so that we can have a fire tonight. I would like to have a fire as I sit by you.

In a while now, I will go down to the cottage, where you wait for me, with your never ending smile. I shall put the berries in your mouth, so the juice dribbles down your jaw; and I shall draw the blankets around your shoulders, so that your poor bones don’t catch a chill.

And I shall sit beside you on the bed while the fire burns, holding you to me and chattering of the day; and if I should look towards you, I know I will see your smile.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2017

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Anamika's Curse

Put this on the girl.” The astrologer held out a small copper tube on a black string. “Then she’ll be all right.”

Anamika’s mum snatched the tube as though it were a life raft in the middle of the ocean. “You’re sure she’ll be all right?” she asked, her thin face filled with desperate eagerness.

“Didn’t I say so?” The astrologer held out his hand for the money. “I’ve checked her horoscope. It’s just a malign influence of the planets.”

Anamika’s mum nodded, fumbling in her handbag. “But the doctors in the hospital said…”

“What do the doctors know?” The astrologer’s oily face shone with sweat despite the small-bladed ceiling fan stirring the air in the room. He had two lower missing front teeth. When he grinned, as he did while taking the roll of pink two thousand rupee notes, the remaining teeth looked like yellow-brown pegs stuck in his mouth. “Doctors know nothing except what their foreign books tell them. It’s just a matter of correcting astral influences.”

“Yes, well…” Anamika’s mum still looked anxious. “How long will it be before she’s fully healed? I mean, she’s been fainting and we’re scared of what might happen at school, and…”

Anamika wished they didn’t talk about her as though she weren’t right there, perched on the chair whose sharp edge was digging into her thighs. She didn’t want to be there anyway. It wasn’t she who’d wanted to come.   

“Didn’t I tell you she’d be all right?” The astrologer peered over their shoulders at the door, already waiting for his next client. The waiting room outside was so crowded that people were spilling into the street. “If you don’t have faith, it won’t work anyway, and…”

“No, no, I didn’t mean anything.” Anamika’s mum jumped up quickly, as though the astrologer would take the amulet back. “Come on, Anu.”

Anamika hated being called Anu. She climbed off the chair slowly, trying not to let it scrape her skin any more than it had already. The soles of her bare feet flinched from the grit in the thin carpet. It was a very dirty room, with dust on the shelves and streaking the one window. Even the astrologer looked dirty.

“Why doesn’t he make himself look better if he knows so much?” she asked as she and her mum put on their shoes outside. “At least he could use his astrology to lose some weight and fix his teeth.”

 Her mum glared at her. “Don’t say such things about these people,” she snapped. “They’re so good that they never do anything for themselves. Don’t you want to get well?”

“Yes, but…” Anamika tried to find words to adequately express what she was thinking. “What I mean is, if it’s so easy, why do people go to doctors? Shouldn’t they – ”

“Shh,” Anamika’s mum snapped, with a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure that nobody was listening. “Do you think all these people are fools? Don’t they want to get well too?”

Someone had been listening. It was a fat woman with a thick bun of hair. “He’s a very good astrologer,” she said severely. “He gave my Rahul an amulet, and he got a job interview call in only a few weeks. It wasn’t his fault that the board was biased and didn’t give Rahul the post.”

There was nothing Anamika had to say to that.

“Whatever he says comes true,” the woman said.

“Come along,” her mum said, mollified. “I’ll get you an ice cream.”


 Of course Anamika didn’t get better.

“I can’t understand it,” her mum said. “She fainted again in school today. And she’s growing thinner by the day, you can see it. The astrologer promised that his amulet would cure her. Should I take her back to him tomorrow? Maybe if he gave her a stronger amulet, or a ring with a power gem...”

“Don’t be stupid,” Anamika’s father snapped. “The amulet is useless. The astrologer is a fraud. I could have told you...”

“You could, could you?” her mother yelled back. “Then why didn’t you? Why didn’t you once tell me to not take her there? And now what do you want me to do?”

They leaned across the dining table at each other like snarling animals. Clapping her hands over her ears, Anamika went to her room. But her room didn’t have a door, just a curtain, and she could still hear them.

“Just tell me,” her father was raging, “why you never told me that this bad blood was in your family.”

“My family? My family?” her mum screeched in reply. “Nobody in my family had this in their lives. It must be your family.”

“Don’t lie,” her dad shouted back. “It’s not as though I even wanted a daughter. If we’d had a son...”

There was a shocked silence, which was at last broken by Anamika’s mother.

“All right,” she said. “So maybe someone cursed us. Maybe it’s our punishment for something.”

“Punishment? Curse? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Maybe it’s something she did in a past life, then.” Her mother sounded weary. “The question is, what do we do now?”

“Take her to the doctors again,” her father replied bitterly. “What else?”

“You know what they said. She’ll need medicine, injections every day, her whole life long. You think we can keep that secret?”

“And so?”

“And so? And so? How stupid are you?” Anamika’s mother hissed. “Who’s going to marry her, with her problem? Tell me that.”

“Is that all you think about? Getting her married? She’s just a girl.”

“Just a girl,” her mother repeated. “And just now you were telling me that you hadn’t wanted a daughter. And don’t you think we should think about it? Even if we’d had another child, who’d have married him, with the bad blood in the family?”

Anamika had thrown herself down on the bed and pulled the pillow over her head, but she still couldn’t drown out their voices. “Do what you want,” her father said at last. “Drag the girl off to some witch doctor if you want. I couldn’t care less.” There was a brief silence, and the front door slammed.

Anamika’s mother came into her room. “Anu?”

Anamika tried to pretend she was sleeping, but the tears catching in her throat made her breathing ragged and uneven, so her mum knew. “Anu, don’t bother about this, all right? We’ll fix this.”

“How?” Anamika asked, her head still buried under the pillow. Her breath, reflected off the mattress, was furnace-hot on her face. She wished she could stop breathing.

“I’ll find something...I’ll ask around. There must be a cure of some sort. Don’t worry.”

Without waiting for an answer, she turned and left, the curtain swishing shut behind her.


Make a sacrifice at the temple,” Auntie Geeta said. “The goddess answers all prayers, if the sacrifice is big enough.”

“What kind of sacrifice?” Anamika’s mother asked.

Auntie Geeta gestured vaguely. “Gold? The goddess usually wants sacrifices of gold.”

“Gold.” Anamika’s mother busied herself pouring tea. “You mean bribe the goddess?” she asked.

Auntie Geeta made a gesture of exaggerated shock. “How can you say that! I thought you were a good Hindu. You know you can’t get something for nothing.”

Anamika’s mother shrugged. “But it is that, isn’t it? And, anyway, how many people do you know whose prayers the goddess has actually answered?”

“I heard that the jeweller’s wife’s sister had many stillbirths and miscarriages until she...”

“No, no, Geeta,” Anamika’s mother said. “How many people do you, yourself, know whose prayers the goddess has answered?”

“Well, I...” Geeta’s thick-lipped mouth opened and closed, more like that of a fish than ever. “I...”

Auntie Shyama had been watching the whole thing with quiet enjoyment. She spoke up now. “Well, I might know someone...she does amazing things.”

“Amazing things?”

“Yes, with magnets and things. It’s really great.” She patted her thick thigh for emphasis. “She took away my rheumatism pain almost completely. I’ll give you the address.”

Unhappy at being upstaged, Auntie Geeta was about to say something cutting when Anamika came back from school. All three ladies turned towards her. “Anu,” her mother said, “say Namaste to your aunts.”

Anamika bent her head and joined her palms together, knowing it wasn’t enough to please her mother, but unable to do anything more. “Ah, mum...” she began.

“What are you feeding her, Amita?” Auntie Geeta sang out. “She’s as thin as a rake!”

“I do believe the poor child has flu,” Auntie Shyama said. “Come here, Anu, let me feel your forehead.”

“Mum,” Anamika repeated with increased desperation. She felt sweat stream down her face. Aunt Shyama’s huge face began to pulsate, flashing grey and white and grey. “Mum...” she wailed one more time, and fell forwards on to the tea cups.

It was the greatest entertainment Geeta and Shyama had had in weeks.


The hospital room smelt of disinfectant, and Anamika’s hand felt stiff where the needle was stuck in it and held in place with tape. The other hand was swollen and blue where the blood had leaked out from a punctured vein. Her throat hurt, too, when she tried to swallow.

She could hear voices from the doorway, and her name.

“How could you do this to her?” It was the doctor who had examined her this morning, who had embarrassed her by lifting up her gown to look at her all over. Her voice was hard and cold. “The child almost died!”

“You don’t understand.” It was Anamika’s mother. “It’s hard bringing up a daughter, and...”

“In any case, it’s our business,” Anamika’s father snapped. “This isn’t America or England that you can tell us what to do with our own child. This is...”

“This will be murder, if you don’t listen,” the doctor said. “Your daughter is very sick. It is not her fault that she’s sick, and she does not deserve to suffer.”

“Well, then, give us a solution,” her father said. “If you can do that, then, fine.”

“I’ve been telling you,” the doctor said. “Your previous doctors also told you. She’s going to need insulin injections and daily blood glucose checks, and with that she can...”

Anamika stopped listening. The words flowed round and over her, like a river, and stopped having any meaning. She felt as though she was drowning in them, as though they were filling her ears and nose and eyes. She tried to struggle to the surface, to try and breathe.

“All right,” she heard, from a very long way away. It was probably her father, but she couldn’t be sure. With the words clogging her ears, she couldn’t be sure of anything. “We’ll do as you say.”

“Yes, we’ll...” a voice that might have been her mother’s added, from a distance that was as great as that to the stars. “We’ll...”

Suddenly it was very important for Anamika to hear what the voice was saying, but it was from impossibly far away, and though she strained, she could hear less and less. The river closed in and took her under.

Then there was nothing at all.


When Anamika got back from school, Auntie Geeta and Auntie Shyama were slurping tea. They both turned to look at her.

“Anu,” her mum said. “Say Namaste to your aunties.”

“Namaste,” Anamika said dutifully. There was a gecko on the wall, and she watched it crawl up towards the corner. The gecko was small and ugly, but at least it didn’t have to be stared at by Aunties Geeta and Shyama.

“She’s looking good,” Auntie Geeta said eventually.

“Yes,” Auntie Shyama agreed reluctantly. “She’s looking good.”

“Go and change, Anu,” her mum ordered. And, just to make sure the aunties didn’t forget who was in charge here, she added, “Don’t forget to take your injection after washing your hands and feet.”

Relieved, Anamika went to her room. Through the curtain she could hear the women talking.

“We’re taking the best care of her,” her mum began proudly. “She just won’t listen, of course, these girls never listen to anything, but we make sure she gets her injections, and blood tests, and...”

“Injections, what injections,” Auntie Geeta said. “If you’d gone to the temple – ”

“If you’d gone to the woman I told you, the one with the magnets – ” Auntie Shyama said at the exact same moment.

And it was at that point that Anamika threw herself down on the bed and began to laugh.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2017

[This story is for my friend Deaglan and his daughter Niamh, who at the age of eight is successfully coping with Type I diabetes, including injecting herself with insulin, monitoring her own blood sugar, and all the other things she will have to do for the rest of her life.

It is also for every single child sick of diseases that are treatable but go neglected due to ignorance and superstition.]