Saturday, November 21, 2015

2015 DNA-OUT OF PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Sowmya Aji

August 15, 2012
Sowmya Aji

I was standing on our cramped terrace, watching the moon, when I saw them. A group of five men in their early twenties walking up the main road, carrying torches and sticks.
Torches I understand, for no one can predict when Bangalore’s streetlights will go off due to a power shutdown. But why sticks? The street dogs are not that scary, they go away if yelled at or are ignored. No need to beat them off with sticks.
I watched as they turned down our small road in Neelasandra. They appeared to be headed for our house. Visitors for our antiquated landlady Rukmini Ramakrishna? At this hour? How very odd.
But the rattling knock sounded on our door. Priscilla was asleep, she leaves at 7 am for her job at a start-up IT company in Electronics city. I flew down the old stairs from the terrace, to stop the knocks from waking her, but there was a louder bang. As I reached our door, I heard Priscilla stirring behind me in our shared room.
‘Yaaru?’ I called out, asking who it was. I was not comfortable opening the door at 8.30 pm, despite the room light being on. Bangalore is safe, yes, and I have lived here all my life. But why take risks, especially when it’s a group of young men?
‘Open the door, we have to tell you something,’ said a voice. Priscilla was sitting up. ‘What is it?’ she asked me in her Assamese-clipped English. ‘They are saying they have something to tell us,’ I muttered. ‘But who is it?’ she asked again.
I didn’t like it, but if they continued yelling, Rukku, as Priscilla and I referred to the landlady, would come out of her house next door. She had warned us when she rented this room to two unwed girls that there should be no boys at all. And finding another room at this rent in Bangalore was filled with difficulties.
I opened the door a crack. ‘What did you want?’ I asked. The cool dude in front, in a dark, stylish kurta, pants and neon sneakers, held the incongruous stick and torch in his hands. ‘We don’t want to talk to you, we want to talk to her,’ he said gruffly. I frowned and turned to Priscilla.
Priscilla looked at me blankly. She swung her legs off the bed and came to the door. ‘What?’ she asked him, peering through the partially opened door, over my shoulder. All the young men on the other side of the door stirred. ‘This one’s a typical chinky only,’ said one. I bristled and glared, but luckily Pricilla didn’t hear him.
‘Medam,’ said the dude in front of me, addressing Priscilla in English, ‘We warn you. We don’t want your kind here. Leave Bangalore and go back to wherever you come from. And don’t come back. Or…’ he lifted his stick, uncaring of my presence.
This couldn’t be happening. Not in my city! ‘What are you saying!’ I hissed, furious. The dude ignored me and gave Priscilla a sneering smile. ‘Be happy medam. I am warning you, not attacking you. Go. Don’t be here when we come again tomorrow.’
I was shaking my head in disbelief. The young men behind him stirred again. ‘Why do we have to hold on now? Let’s show her straight away.’
My hands began to shake. I slammed the door quickly, and stood leaning against it. I was the born in the middle of the Cauvery riots in Bangalore, the riots which showed the world for the first time the simmering fascism under the surface of one of the most welcoming cities anywhere. Local Tamils were attacked by local Kannadigas, often their neighbours, over the release of scarce Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu. My mother went into labour just as the city erupted, and my parents had to walk down to the nearest nursing home. The fear and horror they went through that day, walking amidst hoards of bike-riding young boys shouting hate slogans, has scarred them for life.
Priscilla was speaking in rapid Assamese to someone on her mobile. We needed the cops. I grabbed my mobile, dialled 100. ‘Yes,’ said a languid voice after 10 rings. ‘Some boys have come and threatened my roommate that she should leave Bangalore immediately,’ I blurted out. ‘Which area?’ the voice asked, unperturbed. I gave the address, and more details about those young men. ‘Hmm, you should call Neelsandra police station,’ the voice said. ‘Can’t you help? Give us protection?’  I asked, my voice shaking. ‘Their jurisdiction no, ma? You call them,’ the voice hung up, without listening to my asking for the Neelasandra police station number.
I said sharply: ‘Priscilla, what rubbish. Let’s just go to the police station.’ She shook her head. ‘My mother wants me to catch the train right now and leave,’ she mumbled, digging out her backpack from under her bed.
‘But Priscilla you won’t get a booking on the Guwahati train at this hour!’ I said.  No response. ‘What about your job?’ I asked. She sent most of her money home, and the family needed it.  She couldn’t just chuck it away. ‘I will call and arrange leave tomorrow,’ she said. But did she need to go like this?
I tried again: ‘I am here na, Priscilla? I am local. They can’t do anything. Let us go to the police station?’ I don’t think she even heard me, as she packed.
We went to an ATM. She withdrew everything except the mandatory Rs 1000 from her account. She wouldn’t take anything from me. We found an auto, agreed to pay double meter and went to the city railway station.
The air was thick with fear, as the station overflowed with people from the North East, jabbering in languages that I didn’t know, some of which even Priscilla didn’t understand.  Priscilla looked around with tear-filled eyes. I held her hand tightly, as we waded through the mob to the long snaking queue at the ticket counters.
‘I will never get a ticket,’ Priscilla said, suddenly. I didn’t say anything. We could see the Guwahati train on the platform from where we were standing. It was already full and from what I could see, as packed as a Mumbai local. The train began to move from the platform. There were shouts, slogans, screams, as people jostled, trying to jump from the platform on to the train. The railway staff quickly announced that two more trains would go to Guwahati, and the panic halted.
A man approached us. ‘Ticket?’ he asked, business like. He was selling in them in black at Rs 2000 a ticket. My burning anger finally surfaced. ‘Yellargu ticket kot right helbidtira?’ I said through clenched teeth. He looked surprised, then moved away. Priscilla was uncomprehending. ‘What I said was rowdy-speak for will you kill everybody,’ I said.
Priscilla hugged me. ‘I will come back,’ she said. ‘Will you really?’ I asked, my eyes finally filling with tears. She held my hand. And we waited for the next train.

Sowmya Aji is a journalist with the Economic Times in Bengaluru and the author of Delirium, Harper Collins India, 2013.

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