The Trains Came Back
The government men had just laid the tracks from the village up to the hilly town. Then snakes came out to crawl all over the wheels and over even the huff-puffing engine. Then everything fell off and crashed to smithereens. This was Chitro’s recurrent dream.
In those dreams Chitro also saw torn limbs and blood and heard cries. She woke up with a start every other night. It was a humid monsoon. The rains fell in the gutters of the railway station and Chitro also dreamt of the TV screen in the village shop that showed chest-beating kin of those who got blown up.
She would be coiled up in bed and her ‘village uncle’ would be gone all night with his friends. They carried boxes and wires and batteries and whatnot.
Chitro heard only one conversation: the marauders of rail tracks were either from Pakistan or Bangladesh or Nepal, and everything happened with the help of either bearded men or white men or unseen men from far far away in cities of tall buildings and cases full of money. Deo have mercy on the victims.
The village uncle was good to Chitro in a good good way. Almighty Deo knew orphan girls couldn’t expect better from a single uncle, a distant relation. He was educated and he tried getting Chitro to school. But cow dung was her destiny. She collected dung in this Karbi Anglong village – from home to home, yard to yard, field to field – and made cakes out of the mess to be dried and used as fuel for clay chulhas in the village, as well as bought by tea shops and stores catering to the highway traffic.
Uncle apparently had read Rong Bong Terang and other big fat books. Chitro didn’t know how to pronounce the titles. Uncle’s friends would arrive mostly late at night to read, drink tea, and talk until morning came. Chitro made several kettles of chai. The men enjoyed the hot brown brew, and ignored the stench of cow dung from Chitro’s hands. She suspected the stink was present all over her, even in her skin pores. One of the men, Aboni, actually mentioned it with a snicker.
‘Don’t mind him. He’s been to New York,’ said uncle. Some sahib place of course, thought Chitro. But the mention of dung cake stench upset her.
Aboni was attentive to her notwithstanding his rude remark. He started visiting more often. Chitro thought he was the only one who quarrelled too often with uncle. She found him somewhat irritating. He’d started peering inside the bamboo-walled dank kitchen where Chitro slept. The kotari for chopping betel nuts, the pestle for pounding sesame, the blackened karhai for cooking watery fish tenga, the sad tea kettle, and a stack of dried dung cakes kept her company every night.
Not only did Aboni poke his nose around the partition to come near Chitro, but he also caught hold of her arm and yanked her close to him a few times.
‘You don’t like dung-like me,’ she said.
‘No. But I like you.’
He kissed her a few days later. Chitro had seen and heard of such things on a shop store TV screen. Aboni was emboldened, for she didn’t protest. He simply continued to explore more whenever uncle wasn’t home. Chitro thought it was getting to be actually curious and pleasurable for her. But she still disliked Aboni as a person.
All this stopped abruptly. Uncle came home early on the very day Aboni was to embark on his next experiment with Chitro. Surprisingly, that day Chitro had resisted him while he insisted she shed her overgrown girl skirt and chemise just to let him feel her only with his hands, that’s it. Uncle spluttered in his tobacco-leaf chewing throat and came in right then.
Chitro was quite sure Uncle heard Aboni say, ‘Just one time. It doesn’t hurt to do it one time.’ Because in a flash, uncle lurched for the kotari in the corner with ‘Hoi bastard, this is not your New York!’ and a huge struggle ensued. The stronger and younger Aboni escaped with a mere nick.
‘Put on your clothes, you daain,’ Uncle yelled at Chitro.
That night the police people came. Uncle had coached Chitro well. No, it’s not Uncle who is aiding the terrorists in this remote Karbi Anglong village. Aboni Teron was the kingpin. He has travelled abroad and knows bad people with bombs across the borders. No, Aboni Teron wasn’t related to the great writer Rong Bong Terang. How could he be? He blew away railway tracks and did it in connection with dangerous guys in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Deo knows where else. And yes, a big arms consignment was to arrive at uncle’s mud house that night. How did Chitro know about it? She’d heard the men, especially Aboni, discuss it, behind uncle’s back. Where was Uncle in all this? Deo knew he was only a poor man who had sheltered a poor relation, a girl who no one would risk keeping in the house, and was now targeted by terrorists who pretended to visit as ordinary friends. That’s how it happened all over the world according to news on Alal’s shop TV. Poor good Samaritans were the scapegoats, she knew.
When the police handcuffed Aboni and several others, Chitro dreamt it even more clearly: The snakes were all over the train tracks frantic and lithe as though looking for something…. The confusion in her mind was mostly because she knew where Uncle had hidden the bomb caskets. Next to the kotari, beneath a stack of dung cakes, buried under the clay-floor. The snakes were coming back in great numbers. Limbs still fell in smashed smithereens.
Afterwards Uncle took Chitro to a bus going to the city saying, ‘Go find my friend Horen for a job. I’ve spoken to him. But don’t get raped,’ and left. She sneaked off the bus to go to old scavenger woman Beki’s little shack. Beki understood Chitro’s pain. She didn’t stop her, especially when the girl suddenly seemed to speak and think. Chitro trembled but bravely went to the police to tell them about bombs under dung cakes at uncle’s home. Deo knew, that night the trains came back. And she didn’t dream of snakes anymore when she left for town.
Nabina Das is a poet and writer currently based in Hyderabad. Her first novel Footprints in the Bajra, Cedar Books, Pustak Mahal, 2010 has received critical acclaim. Her poetry volumes BlueVessel, Les Editions du Zaporogue, 2012 and Into the Migrant City, Writers Workshop, 2013-14 have been cited as the best of 2012 and 2014 respectively. Her debut short fiction collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped, LiFi Publications, 2014 continues to garner positive reviews in India and elsewhere. A winner of several writing awards and residencies, Nabina teaches creative writing and also works as an editor.