Saturday, July 26, 2014

DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction: AJAY PATRI

Shifting Lives
Ajay Patri

The red mud underneath her feet is getting thicker by the day. The late rains do not have the strength to pierce through and settle on the surface, making the mud slushy. She wades through it with difficulty and upon reaching the field, picks up a bent stick lying on the ground and scrapes the layer of mud that cakes the soles of her bare feet. She looks up in time to witness Father looking at her with a frown on his weathered face. He doesn't say anything and turning away from her, goes on to join the others.
She hears rumours that she pays little attention to. The yield is disappointing, the weather unpredictable. The soil, which has seen them through so many years has now become stubborn. It has turned on them, choking the roots of the plants they depend on for their livelihood. There is little else to do but move on.

She remains aloof from such discussions but even in her aloofness, she knows that the basest of rumours have their origins in a tiny kernel of truth.
It is a warm night when Father brings up the rumours for the first time in their hut. He doesn't make a fuss of it, saying it while spooning the steaming potato gruel into his mouth rapidly, like he is talking about a sore leg.

We may have to leave this place soon.

She looks at him at sharply, tilting her head as if to ask the obvious question. Father shrugs, his broad farmer's shoulders pushing against the rough fabric of his old clothes.

Land doesn't give as much anymore.

She looks at the pot of gruel on the firewood. The steam hovering over it has all but dissipated.
Three men leave the town and return after two weeks. Their faces are tired and lined with grime but they are grinning. They spend a long time in consultation with Father and the other elders. When they emerge, the happiness that is evident on their faces has an infectious effect on the rest of the townsfolk.

We will go back to our old land.

There is a collective sigh of relief at the announcement and a pall of dread that was hanging over the community is instantly lifted. She cannot understand how they could be so easily convinced when she is not.
Her friend, whom she has known since they were little girls, is more excited about moving than she had expected.

Of course I don't particularly remember the place. What has it been? Fifteen years? Mother told me some stories of what the two of us used to do back then. Won't it be fun to go back there and try to remember it all?

She looks away, unable to bring herself to share in the joy of her lifelong friend. What happened? You don't look too happy about it.

When she looks into those familiar eyes again, her friend understands a bit of what she feels. A bit, because she knows she doesn't understand herself completely at that moment.
The man from the city is obscenely fat with his thinning hair slicked back over his scalp. He is from the government and all the elders stand before him with their backs stooped as he sits on a rickety steel chair under a tree. A thin young man stands behind him with a notepad, his eyes moving furtively over the townsfolk who stand at a respectful distance in fearful silence.

She cannot understand what they are talking about from the snatches of conversation she hears, the official's lazy drawl and the earnestness of Father's voice. After a long time, the man seems convinced and nods his head. A satchel is produced out of nowhere and discretely handed over to the assistant.

You should come and eat at our place, Sir. This would after all be the last time we can host your gracious self.

The man hums and accepts the offer.
She finally manages to get the young man alone to herself when he steps out of their hut to wash his hands. He looks startled by her presence and his eyes stare at her bulging stomach. He seems to know what she wants to say and puts up his wet hands defensively.

You are going with them, aren't you? His voice is hopeful and his eyes betray his nervousness. She stands with her mouth agape at his words.

They don't know, do they?

She slowly shakes her head and sees the relief that spreads over his features. He tries in vain to mask it with a look of feigned concern.

You take care then, right? I mean, I don't think I will be seeing you and your people soon. You are all going over to a completely different district, outside our jurisdiction.

She understands and realises that she is not actually surprised. He stands with a half-smile and looking at him, her face hardens. Taking a step closer, she spits on his smiling face and walks away without looking back at him.
The smoke rises from the field, plumes of uncoiling blackness with a stench that makes her gag. She stands her ground and feels the wave of nausea passing over her and diluting like the smoke over her head. She straightens up and listens to the howls and happy hooting from her people on the other side of the field. They celebrate like children in summertime without a care in the world. She is weighed down by the heaviness of her own physical burden, one hand on her hip for support. The fire dances and glistens in the tears that remain unshed in her eyes.
Their happiness is short-lived. When everything is packed and the oxen have been hitched to the carts, more men come from the city. They are different to the ones from before, people whose hands have never been greased and who have their own idea of how the law must be upheld. Father talks to them earnestly, his beseeching voice becoming more and more desperate. When they are gone, politely declining the offer of a lunch, the elders break the news to the others.

They say we cannot go back to our old land. The law says it is the privilege of the government to decide and they have decided we cannot go back.

There are cries of dismay.

But where do we go? This land is beyond cultivation now. We have burnt the stalks. We cannot stay. We paid the Sahib to ensure that there would be no obstacles.

The elders are helpless. The old Sahib is no longer the one in charge. They no longer have a say in where they want to live. The new Masters just shrugged when presented with their predicament. You should not have burnt the field, they said.

That night, she pretends to sleep but listens furtively to the sound of Father's stifled sobs.
Father wakes her up in the middle of the night, whispering her name gently. She sits up and looks at him, his face half hidden in the darkness. When he speaks, she can still hear the tears in his voice.

The world is beyond us now, my dear daughter. There was a time when the people of our community looked up to me. I could tell them what to do and they would blindly follow me. Now they question me. They say I cannot provide for them anymore and the truth is, they are right.

She looks at him, barely breathing. He manages a teary smile.

If God had given you a tongue, it would have made my life easier. It has not been easy raising you, you know.

She shrugs, a gesture remarkably like his.

You know I never questioned you when ... when everything happened. And I made sure no one else did.

He sighs deeply.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring. This place is not what I had in mind for you, sweet child. Maybe you should go to the father of the...

He pauses when he sees her shake her head violently at the suggestion. His shoulders drop and they both avoid looking at each other in the eye.

Moving from one place to another was always our way of life. We were fortunate that this land sustained us for as long as it did. But now those Sahibs want us to go against everything we believe in. But how do I tell it to the others? They do not understand and they never will. But if we stay here, we will perish as surely as our crops did. We have no land anymore. We will have to go the cities and live in slums, doing menial tasks for people who do not care about us. I do not want that life for you. You must go to him again, if you haven't already.

Tears start streaming down her face at his words. He doesn't make any effort to placate her, sitting stiffly and looking resolutely at the ground.

I cannot bear this burden anymore. This shame. You need to go before things get worse. The town will turn on you soon enough. I only managed to stop them from talking too much but once they cease respecting me, your life will no longer be peaceful. This town will turn hostile. I want you to go before that happens.

They finally look at each other. She points to him.

Me? I can't go with you, you know that. These people still need me, even if they don't know it or accept it. I will stay. I can take their abuse. I can only hope that one day, we can get back to where we belong. But right now, neither of us has a say in doing what we have to do.

His voice is unsure but his eyes are determined. He stands up and extends a hand for her.

Pack your belongings. It is almost dawn. I trust you to find your way out of here.
She stands on a little hill and watches the pyre burning from a distance. The townsfolk stand in a circle around it in complete silence. The place looks much as it did the last time she was there. The ashes from the burnt stalks still lie thick on the ground. Smoke escapes in tiny wisps. In three days, she had expected the world she grew up in to be gone forever. Instead, it is the same place but with a gaping void where Father used to be.

She understands why he wanted her to leave. He hadn't expected her to be back but she was. She had trudged her way back to the town, having spent most of the money Father had given her on the night of her departure. A lie could only be maintained for so long. She couldn't go back to that young man no matter what Father thought. Now she stands looking at his funeral, unsure of the world around her. He had been right after all. With his last action, he had left her no choice even though she had believed otherwise on her journey back.

She waits till the crackling of the burning logs stops and heads back the way she had come.

Ajay Patri is a twenty-one-year old law student from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He is a compulsive reader and passionate about writing. For him, writing is a release from the humdrum of everyday life, a form of expression he cannot do without. He admires writers such as McEwan, Ishiguro and Coetzee; the almost poetic beauty that they bring to their prose draws him to their works.

He is an introvert with a fascination for indie films and is one of the co-founders of a film society in college. He is also obsessed with football and turned nocturnal during the 2014 World Cup. In his free time, he can be found running or trying to get better at playing the guitar, despite being completely tone deaf.

1 comment:

  1. This story is terribly moving and written in a strong and economical style which suits the subject matter explored and adds to its depth.