Sunday, November 22, 2015

2015 DNA-OUT OF PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Abha Iyengar

The Marshlands
Abha Iyengar

Tip, Tap! Five seconds. Salma waited with bated breath.
Tip, Tap!
Tap water. Drop by drop. Continuous and incessant. With exactly a five second gap.
She had not slept a wink. She was in a cell about six feet by six feet, with a low steel bunk to lie on. There was a small hole in the steel floor into which she could piss and shit. She had no idea where it all went, maybe there was ground beneath the steel floor which was being naturally fertilised by others like her.
In the morning a jug of water to drink and wash with, and food for the day, would be handed to her through a small hatch in the grills, and then this was rudely shut. There was no conversation with anyone, not even the person who handed her the morning things. The food was too little for the day and the jug of water she only used for drinking. She could not use it for bathing, for then she would die of thirst. It was freezing inside the cell, yet she was thirsty all the time. Her head ached too. Often, she had dizzy spells. She had no idea how she looked and her clothes had begun to hang. She wondered how she had filled them up once, running her fingers now along her thin arms, the flesh sagging and dry, with no colour.
Rohan, the young man from across the border, had called her ‘beautiful’. She had heard the word escape his mouth before he reined his expression in. She wondered if he would still call her that, if they met again. But she knew that this would not happen.
She did not know where he was. He was most probably dead. The currents of the water had taken him away from her. And then Suleiman her husband, and the others, had found her standing in the muddy waters, losing balance, trying to hold out against the force of the current. They had put out a net and dragged her in, like a fish who has given up struggling long ago. Like the fish her parents caught in the mangrove forests where she lived.
Her parents had married her to Suleiman at the age of fifteen. Suleiman was like a god to her. She washed his feet and cooked for him and did whatever he told her to do. She was used to this, had done it for her father when she was a girl.
Like her father, the only other man she knew, Suleiman had been kind to her in the beginning. But being her husband, he slept with her, every night. When he approached her on the wedding night, she had been petrified, but he had been gentle, and she had learnt to understand that this was something he wanted, though she did not enjoy any of it.
She remembered how she had enjoyed fishing, going with her father in his boat, drawing the fish in, the sun hot on their bare brown shoulders. She had not gone home since her marriage, did not know how her parents were.
Of late, Suleiman had become difficult to please. His eyes would redden with anger and his voice would rise. One day Suleiman hit her across the face. She did not understand the reason for this.
After he hit her, she sat confused and sobbing, nursing her split lip with her hand, wondering what she could do to make amends. Then he said, ‘Three years now, Salma, three years. Every night I take you to bed, but there is no child. Enough. I shall send you back to your parents. Now, cook me some fish and rice.’
She had pulled herself up, looked at him with tears in her eyes, trying hard not to cry, trying hard to please. She saw how his eyes had narrowed. She saw how she had diminished in his eyes. She could see him wanting her gone.
Mother had told her at the time of parting, ‘Keep him happy. He is your god.’ She lit the fire and put the fish to cook, watching it with absent eyes, wondering how much it must hurt the fish to be caught, to die struggling at the end of a hook.
That night Suleiman had ignored her, slept away. She was thankful, and unhappy too. She did not want to go home, there was no hope there. Her parents would not allow her in, not this way. She had looked out of her hut and seen the waters, how the sea moved in and out, splashing against the mangrove trees, the moon full in the sky.
The next morning, Rohan had come from India, bringing some fresh goods for Suleiman. Suleiman went regularly to the city to sell foreign goods from India. There was a big demand for them.
As usual, she had her face covered, but a part of the cloth had slipped while she served him water. Rohan had looked at her, taking in her beauty, and her split and swollen lip. She had immediately put the cloth back in place, but seen the concern cloud his eyes.
Suleiman had stepped out to look at the wares in the sunlight, and Rohan was about to follow him out before he turned and spoke quietly to her, ‘He hit you?’
She nodded dumbly, not knowing what else to say.
Suleiman had left the next morning for the city with the newly purchased goods. When Rohan arrived at her door, she was sitting in a corner, sobbing.
He said, ‘Come with me. He cannot do this to you. I will take you away.’
She was scared, because the night before, Suleiman had hit her stomach hard with punched fists, called her barren.
She clutched her stomach silently and hobbled towards the waters, following Rohan. Rohan helped her to his boat and they headed out. She removed the cloth that covered most of her face. She trusted Rohan, he did not look at her in any way other than a sister.
A wind rose, and then the storm came. In the waters of the Sunderbans, the boat capsized. Rohan held on to her, trying to drag her towards the shore, but the waters were too strong for him. He let go and as far as she knew, he was lost in the sea.
She had somehow managed to stand up and surface, when the net had caught her and dragged her back. There were suddenly so many boats, so many people.
Suleiman stood there, watching her with cold eyes. She ran to him, slipping and falling in the muddy waters, but he kicked her away. The storm continued to rage, when he turned to one of the officers and said, ‘She is a traitor. I knew all along that there was something wrong. She must be taking something not to have a child.’
The men sniggered. The village folk who had gathered around began to throw stones at her.
The skies cleared, but all around her, she just saw a howling darkness, its mouth open to claim her.
Traitor? What was that?
She learnt soon enough during the long periods of interrogation that because she had ‘run away’ with a Hindu man, she was against them, the Bangladeshi people, her people. She was a traitor. She was a traitor to the faith.
But I say my prayers everyday, she had pleaded.
Why did you elope with the man? Who is he?
My husband does business with him, she had said.
You are a liar. Suleiman is an upright man, a good Muslim.  He would not do this kind of business.
But how would I know Rohan otherwise?
That is what we want to ask you. Do you know he is a staunch Hindu? He does not eat beef.
He was just trying to help me.
Why? You are not happy with Suleiman?
He…Suleiman hit me…he...  She showed them her lip and stomach.
You have no shame. Showing us your face and your body.
One of them hit her hard.
Another cautioned him. No, don’t do that. We have to do this the right way. She is a terrorist. We will have to put the case against her, try her.
They had brought her here and put her in this fancy cell in Dhaka city. She knew she was there because she heard them talk. She was a prisoner, awaiting trial. She had gone over to the other side, was now a terrorist.
Her brain had reeled with all the questions they asked her, hurled at her, shouted at her. She had eventually tried to shut her ears but they had prised her hands loose. Now they had put her in maximum security, called her a dangerous criminal, anti-Bangladesh, anti-Muslim, anti-faith.
She was more or less convinced of her guilt. Of course, she had run away with a Hindu man who had wanted to take her away from her husband. She was guilty of that. She was guilty of so many things, of not giving Suleiman a child. She was responsible for his unhappiness. He had called her barren, compared her to the shifting silt of the Sunderbans.
She closed her eyes. She imagined herself on the boat with her father, fishing. She had asked her father about the mangrove forests all around them, and he had said, ‘They hold the silt in place. They prevent the erosion of the land. All the land would be washed out to the sea if it was not for the mangroves.’ A kingfisher had swooped down and emerged, a fish caught in its beak, and she had smiled, watching it.
Her father had smiled back. ‘You must be like these trees, Salma,’ he had said, ‘hold your land and family in place, prevent the silt from flowing out to the sea.’
But she was the silt, barren, shifting, flowing where the waters took her. She had gone with another man.
She had tried to be like the trees, spreading her roots, holding on to Suleiman, keeping him happy. She could not help it if her body was silt, infertile, unable to give anything. She looked down at her stomach; it was caved in.  She could see her ribs. She went to take a piss. Dark coloured urine flowed out, a few drops.
She would pray for the good of Suleiman. He had done what he could. He could not be held responsible for this erosion. He was like the river, and all rivers are gods. It was the land that had to hold on, keep itself in place. She had not been able to do that. If he kicked and hit her and pushed her away, the fault was hers.
Tip, Tap!
The drops could not be ignored.
She pulled at her hair and screamed but no one heard her.
Tip, Tap!
Salma lay on the floor, writhing with agony, and then she was still.
Tip, Tap!
That was the only, persistent, sound.

Abha Iyengar is an internationally published author, poet and British Council certified creative writing facilitator. Her work has appeared in The Four Quarters Magazine, Bewildering Stories, Muse India, The Asian Writer, Pure Slush, and others. Her story, The High Stool, was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award. Her poem-film Parwaaz won a special jury prize at Patras, Greece. She is winner of the Mariner Award 2010, and the Lavanya Sankaran fellowship 2009-10. She was a finalist in the FlashMob 2013 Flash Fiction contest. Her published works are Yearnings, Serene Woods, 2010; Shrayan, Blue Pumpkin, 2012; Flash Bites, Authorspress, 2013; Many Fish to Fry, Pure Slush, 2014; and The Gourd Seller and Other Stories, Kitaab, 2015.

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