Janet H Swinney
The whole business was just like making tandoori roti.
Pooja tipped the soft folds of velvet out of her shallow bowl on to a flat surface that she’d prepared earlier. Then, squatting down to get up close to her task, she briskly shaped them into a mound. Once that was done, she inhaled purposefully, plunged her fingers deep into the still-warm mulch and began to knead. She’d been at this since she was eight, relieving her mother of one small daily duty, and allowing her to concentrate on other work in the kitchen. Her practised fingers were deft and she had flexibility in the wrists as she worked her ingredients to and fro. The dough was a little slack this morning so she fed in a little more fibre. She worked the mixture steadily until it developed some plasticity and she could roll it into balls between her palms.
She moved quickly, setting out the regular sized spheres in tidy rows on a piece of tarpaulin, like besan ke laddu on a tray. Then starting again at the beginning, she smacked each one out smartly between her hands until it was as round as a chapatti, and about the same size, but domed instead of being flat. Once this was done, she got to her feet, took the ‘rotis’ one at a time and, with the energy of a shot-putter, slapped them on to the wall of the house. She checked that they’d all stuck firmly – no good having them do a death drop on to the ground the minute your head was turned – and stepped back to admire her handiwork: umpteen rows of ‘rotis’ spread across the building, her handprint evident on every single one. She slung her bowl into a corner with a reverberating clang and bounced off down the lane, leaving the produce to bake initially at twenty-two degrees centigrade, rising later to thirty, until they were firm and could be taken down for consumption.
The school semester had started some weeks ago. Pooja hadn’t re-joined her class. In fact, it was hard to say what her class was or should have been. Over the years, her attendance had been more off than on. And that was because she didn’t care for the whole ‘schooling’ experience. She didn’t like being constrained in a stale room with scant daylight and an assortment of boys who flung their fists into your sides at every opportunity. She didn’t like being yelled at by other children because of the over-ripe smell she brought indoors with her. And she didn’t like the teacher telling her to shut up every time she felt like speaking and commanding her to speak when there was nothing she had to say. And whatever they were instructed in seemed to have little relevance to her. She found no interest in pens or pencils or alphabets or times tables, and she couldn’t make head nor tail of the crumbling canvas charts with the maps on them. She was twelve now and barely able write her own name, and this had become a matter for further humiliation though, to be fair, she had developed a sharp tongue and a lurid vocabulary that she applied in her own defence.
It was Jitu’s heels she caught sight of first. Two cracked pink crescents peering at her out of the dust, his unevenly worn chappals cast to one side, one of them with a busted strap. The rest of Jitu was sprawled in between two clumps of flaggy canes on the bank that sloped down to the dwindling pond. He was intent on something and oblivious to the needles of scratchy grass beneath his belly, still parched from the summer heat. Pooja took aim and stamped on his calf just at the point where the muscle attached to the bone above the ankle.
‘Ow!’ he yelled and rolled over. He tried to grab her, but she was on top of him at once, seizing both his hands, pushing her fingers between his right down to the roots, and pressing his arms out to the sides. He tried to dislodge her with his knees, but she kept her balance, riding him like a horse.
‘Now who’s got the upper hand?’ she yelled.
‘I’ll get you, bitch-face sister,’ he said, and rolled over on to his side, taking her with him. They lay in the grass laughing and out of breath. It was a routine they’d performed many times before. They were very fond of wrestling. She raised her arms above her and curled her fingers like talons ready to pounce and torture him further.
‘No! Wait! You’ll have scared it off now.’
She stopped. ‘Scared what off?’
‘A fish here? What fish could survive in this grot.’
‘I swear. About this size.’ Jitu indicated the length of his forearm.
‘Never! Probably a stick or something.’
‘I do know a stick from a fish from your fat arse.’
‘Show me then.’
They scrambled closer to the edge of the pond but there was nothing to see except the usual clumps of water hyacinth mooning about and, on the far side, a white plastic drum that might once have contained engine oil lodged among the reeds.
‘See!’ said Pooja.
‘Well, you shouldn’t have made such a racket.’
‘You made the racket.’
‘You’re a real pest, you know.’ Jitu was a bit cross now.
To take his mind off what might, or might not have been her fault, Pooja started climbing the haggard peepul tree that stood near the pond. The thing had been there since time immemorial and was a village landmark. But it was showing its age now, tormented by the lightning storms that roamed the plains and always made a beeline for its branches. It still offered enough possibilities for someone who wanted cover and a good vantage point, though. Pooja had a good reach and could climb as swiftly and easily as a macaque. She sat halfway up the tree and watched Jitu fumble up after her.
‘You’re going to get into one hell of a lot of trouble,’ she said.
‘You’re ages late with your milk round. You should be loading the canisters on to the cart by now.’
‘My dad will shout at you.’
‘Your dad shouts at everybody. Who gives a shit?’
Well, that was true. Sometimes he started before cock crow and didn’t stop till after the last dog barked at night. If there was gourd in the chana that was enough to start him off. If there wasn’t, that would serve the purpose too. You could hear him from miles away unless someone started up a tractor. The shouting was one of the reasons no-one ever ventured down the lane to their house. That, and the inescapable waft of cow dung. They had relatives at every corner of the village: an uncle in a duplex in the north-west, an aunt in a cottage in the south-east, a cousin’s cousin in some complicated construction near the gurudwara – an extensive clan – but none of them ever came near. There had been rows. Most of them instigated by her father, who was no respecter of rank or persons. The rifts he created were slow to mend, and Pooja’s mother had given up trying.
Pooja scrabbled further up the tree. She gazed out from the rattling leaves to where the furthest field ruled a straight line across the muggy sky. She had long wondered where that furthest field ended and what and who was on the other side. The depth of her wondering made her feel light-headed.
‘You’ve got some mess on your salwar,’ said Jitu.
‘Cow mess?’ Cow mess was nothing unusual and nothing to worry about.
‘No, not cow mess. Rusty red. Like my sisters’ secret mess.’
Pooja thought she’d better investigate, but before she could, the sky went black and she slid from her branch.
She came to in their kitchen. All manner of ructions were going on. Her father was shouting one thing, and her mother another. She was being told to get herself changed, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to do it. Someone, it seemed, had taken a mangled cycle wheel and was twisting it in her insides. Someone was playing the soles of her feet with a metal comb. Someone was driving nails through her nipples. Someone was scraping broken glass down the backs of her calves. Someone was hauling her entrails out from between her thighs with hooks. On top of this, she had a swollen ankle and felt weepy.
Jitu had carried her all the way back up the track on his back. But, apparently, once he’d got her in through the door of the house, he’d been bawled at, had his ears boxed and sent packing.
For the rest of the day, Pooja lay on her bed. She wondered just exactly what had befallen her and what was going to happen now.
What did happen was that her life drained of humour. Her older brothers no longer played rough and tumble games with her in the evenings when they came home from work. Her father ignored her. Her mother ordered her about without looking at her, as though she’d committed some crime. There was a horrible hush about the place. Jitu was nowhere in evidence, his milk round taken over, after much cussing and swearing, by the younger of her brothers. And she learned, to her horror, that for the foreseeable future, she was going to be experiencing this state of wretchedness which was, supposedly ‘a good thing’, for one week out of every four. A quarter of her life! How could the world limp on with half of its population in this condition? Surely there was someone, somewhere beyond her ken, with a good brain and the means to do it, working to put this injustice to rights.
She became dimly aware that her future was being discussed. There was talk of money and the lack of it, distance and proximity, kinship and connections, her insufficiency of education, her waywardness, her lack of fitness for anything, except for making dung cakes. ‘Well, they don’t fucking pay to see that in any Olympic stadium!’ her father roared. There were rows about all these things, but particularly, about who was responsible for her failings. ‘Should have sent her down to Sansarpur and got her learned to play hockey,’ her older brother sniggered from the corner of the room. This flash of brilliance earned him a jolting knock to the jaw from his father.
Night after night, the patriarch disappeared, returning late, frustrated and furious. Finally, he pronounced that times had been too hard for too long and that, no matter how hard he tried, his daughter was persona non grata; no-one was prepared to accept the pittance they could offer to take such a useless item off their hands.
So when an NGO showed up in the village, with a mission to help the state improve its school meals programme while at the same time furthering its strategy on the well-being of the girl child, Pooja returned to learning. If someone could bear even a part of the costs of her upkeep by providing her with a cooked meal in the middle of the day, her parents reasoned, this was a cast iron argument for education.
Pooja entered the barren space that was the schoolyard clumsy, downcast, self-conscious, chastened and a martyr to the cause of the female gender. She had no friends here and, until now, had never missed them. But the stony stares that were turned on her as she crossed the playground made her wish for just one friendly face.
Priya swung her leg over the back of Nihal’s motorbike, her left hand resting gently on his shoulder, and settled down on to the seat. There was something sexually ambiguous about the movement, something defiant; swinging the leg back from the groin and outwards from the hip, like a male dog peeing at a post; at the same time, there was something about the soft touch of her fingers on the back of his logo-emblazoned t-shirt that suggested a willingness for greater intimacy. The motorbike sank closer into the earth with the weight of her body and they were off, past the bus stand, over the railway lines and out on to the country lanes before she’d had time to adjust her jeans in her crotch, or her bag on her shoulder. She was buggered, though, if she was going to go native and sit side-saddle on one of these things, like a doll at a fairground. It seemed so olde-worlde and so submissive.
She’d worked in close proximity to Nihal now for almost a month. It had taken her quite a while to take to him. He was quiet, gangly – his knees came up to his chest when he sat on his motorbike – his chin was too pronounced, and his moustache not pronounced enough; his hair flopped over his forehead like a lost cause, and he wore heavy-rimmed spectacles. The others in their team, almost universally, dismissed him on the basis of his spectacles alone. The consensus was that he was a nerd, and Priya had no reason to think otherwise. Her heart sank when she found herself paired with him for many of their tasks because he wasn’t fluent in the local argot.
The girls were a squirming mass of plaits and satchels, knees and elbows, crammed together on the bare cement floor in the room that served as the school’s dining-cum-storeroom. Empty-handed Pooja sat as far back as she possibly could, in the hope of avoiding attention. Behind her a cluster of bashful women adjusted toddlers on their hips and manoeuvred babies at their breasts. Pooja had thought of doing a runner, but her curiosity had got the better of her. The stoves and the cooking pots had been cleared away, and the thalis and beakers swept up and washed. Their teacher was asserting her importance, pinning up a chart at the front of the room, while the newcomers settled down on a couple of crooked plastic chairs and looked out at their audience with well-intentioned anticipation.
Pooja made a quick appraisal of the chart, which depicted a squashed orange with words that she couldn’t read written in a bold hand underneath, but she was more interested in the strangers themselves. The man was tall and narrow-chested. He wore jeans and a t-shirt with the same orange logo on the front. Somehow, he managed to make these things look the opposite of casual. She had the impression that he’d been indoors for far too long. The woman, on the other hand, seemed more at ease. But Pooja couldn’t make her out at all. Unlike their teacher, Mrs. Atwal, who was always wrapped in a luminous sari, she wore a short, plain kurta with only a few potli buttons on the margins for decoration, and sported this over a pair of faded denim jeans. Her black hair was short: not rolled into a bun or fastened up but chopped. It was as though she was Indian but not Indian at the same time.
The woman introduced herself and her male colleague and described what the health programme would involve. Different things for girls of different ages, it seemed, depending on whether or not they’d had babies and whether or not they were expecting them. The man listened shamelessly to this, nodding as Priya Miss, as she was called, described the health risks associated with menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth and how they hoped to minimise them. When she’d finished, the man added, ‘The girl child has much right to be on this planet as the male one. And we all have a duty to safeguard that right. The government wants you to understand that. A healthy girl is a healthy wife is a healthy village. By bringing healthy girls into the world and bringing them up well, we’ll build a strong Mother India.’
The women knew better. They shuffled the children on their hips, drew their pallus down over their faces and sniggered. The man flushed and sat down.
‘Any questions before we finish for today?’ asked Priya.
Pooja had not been paying attention to what was being said. She was busy studying the shape of Priya Miss’s dupatta-less breasts beneath her kurta and monitoring the glint of a tiny gold symbol that jiggled at her throat. What was the point of such a trinket? Pooja wondered. If you had money, you should flash it on something everyone could see and envy. Suddenly, her curiosity got the better of her. She stuck her hand up, and found herself asking boldly: ‘Where do you come from, Priya Miss?’
Her daring caused an outraged murmur that ran across the room like a ripple on a pond.
‘Theek hai,’ said Priya. ‘I don’t mind telling. I come from a town in England. I’m a doctor in a big hospital there.
‘But you speak Punjabi.’
‘That’s because my family’s originally from Bathinda. I wanted to come here to see my ancestral home and to do something useful.’
‘But how did you get here?’ Now others besides Pooja were interested and settled down to listen to Priya’s account of her flight from Heathrow, her arrival at Indira International and such wonders as the self-flushing toilets in the washroom, the sensor-activated taps and the moving staircase that led to domestic departures. Some sat with their mouths open. The health and well-being of the girl child had been entirely forgotten.
‘A moving staircase!’ goggled a child near the front.
‘Yes. You step on to a moving plate in the floor, and the stairs rise up out of it in front of you, one after another, until you find that you’re standing on one. So you stay on that step and you’re carried up on it to the next level. When you get there, the stairs disappear beneath you, like waves into water and you step off.’
‘But how can it do that, miss?’
‘It’s powered by an electric motor, that turns gears that move a belt,’ Nihal explained. ‘The steps are linked together in a continuous train.’ All eyes turned in his direction, and then immediately swivelled back to Priya. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
‘The whole thing is made of gleaming steel,’ said Priya, ‘so that it rises up in front of you just like, like… the ice lingam in the Amarnath cave.’ (Not that she’d ever seen it.)
‘They have them on the Delhi metro,’ Nihal persisted. ‘A single escalator can carry about 2,000 people an hour.’
Priya glared at him. ‘Each step has shiny little teeth along the edge, like the teeth of a comb,’ she continued, ‘so that all the steps can fit together neatly and the staircase can keep running smoothly.’
‘They’re called “cleats”,’ said Nihal.
‘Who cares?’ hissed Priya. ‘And on both sides there are walls of glass, just like transparent sheets of ice.’
Pooja ran all the way home, down through the brick lanes of the village, across the main road, along the dirt track that ran through several, heavily ruled, cabbage fields, across a drainage ditch and into their compound where half a dozen large-boned cows stamped moodily in the shed, their haunches turned to the open air, glowering over their shoulders in between bouts of compulsive eating. Shitting where they stood. A moving silver staircase that transported you to the heavens, eh? Suddenly she felt better about herself, and about the world.
‘I hate this bloody t-shirt,’ said Nihal.
‘They were all too tight for me, thankfully,’ said Priya.
‘I don’t like walking around with the picture of a foetus on my chest.’
‘Well don’t then.’
‘Organisational branding and all that.’
‘Forget it. They’re not here to see you, are they? And when we take photos to show them what we’ve been up to, you can put one on.’
They were sitting in the dining-room of their modest hotel. The food was just about edible. With a spoon, Priya pursued some hardy cubes of paneer round her plate through watery effluent from a mound of soggy saag. She had begun to revise her opinion of Nihal upwards. In the afternoons, while she coaxed the babies into the scales, and read off the measurements, he carefully recorded them. As she did the blood tests, he meticulously labelled the vials. He was patient, reliable, well-organised, gentle and didn’t object to any of the filthier tasks. Seeing that he was such an essential member of the team, the women soon forgot to be flustered by his presence. Back at base camp, he had set up patient records on his laptop and devised clever spreadsheets and bar charts so that soon a profile of their target population began to emerge. He could cut the data in various permutations to show the incidence of malnourishment, anaemia, calcium deficiency, ailments of the digestive tract, trachoma and disability. He had the laptop open on the table between them now.
‘It’s not a good look in a population, is it?’
Priya glanced at the screen. ‘I know. You know that girl who was at the back on the first day?’
‘The skinny one in the filthy clothes who asked you where you came from?’
‘Her. Did you see the colour of her skin when we did the tests?’
‘Anaemia more likely. Such acute anaemia that I don’t know how she was standing up. Heavy menses as well as underfed.’ Priya gave up with the paneer and cast the plate and spoon to one side: ‘Well the school meals programme and the distribution of iron tablets should soon start to make a dent in that. We’ve really increased the nutritional value in the food the children are getting.’
‘That would be nice,’ said Nihal.
‘What do you mean: “That would be nice,” in that tone of voice?’
‘You do realise that all that’ll happen is that the parents will stop feeding their children at other times of the day. ‘They see school dinners as an economic supplement, not a dietary one.’
Priya had thought of starting on her dessert, but now felt guilty about it. ‘Oh!’
‘You really don’t know much about life in a poor community, do you?’
‘Guilty as charged,’ she said. ‘I’ve been working twenty-four seven in a department in a very busy hospital, that’s why. And that’s what I’m here to find out about. Anyway, if it’s all so bloody hopeless, Mr. Cynical, what’re you doing here?’
‘I needed to get away from my father,’ said Nihal. ‘He wants me to go into the family business. It’s not what I want to do, but he’s very persistent.’
‘What’s the family business?’ Priya was imagining light engineering or the production of cardboard boxes.
‘He’s, erm, a scholar of Hindu philosophy and a yoga teacher. He used to be a History professor, but he got too deep into the philosophy and people started to take him seriously. He’s written books. He has lots of students. They come from all over the world. We had to build a hall to accommodate them.’
‘You mean he’s a guru?’
Nihal looked embarrassed. ‘Yes.’
‘Oh my God! And he wants you to follow in his footsteps?’
‘Yes. Like in a gharana in classical music. If you can, you should keep things in the family.’
Priya rocked back on her chair and started to laugh. ‘Well, why don’t you? Guruing seems like a pretty lucrative scam to me.’
Nihal was offended. ‘He’s not a scammer.’
‘So what’s the problem? If he’s really helping people, bringing them peace of mind or whatnot, you can learn to do the same.’
Nihal shook his head. ‘No, it’s not the way I want to help people. A lot of the grief in this world is caused by material problems with practical solutions. That’s what I’m interested in: intermediate technology, finding simple solutions that will help people at rock bottom lead easier lives.’
‘Here, have a rasgulla,’ said Priya, spooning a couple on to his plate. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll find a way to do what you want.’ As they chewed their way through the rubbery balls, she looked at Nihal with fresh eyes. Behind those awful spectacles she suddenly saw someone who was thoughtful, altruistic and committed, and she felt a sudden pang of affection for him in the same way that one does when a new puppy is brought into the house.
What put an end to Pooja’s higher education was the session Priya and Nihal did on e-coli. They had decided to hit hygiene hard to try and counteract the undermining of the free meals programme. When it came to talking about transmission Nihal, as usual, had a chart to hand with relevant illustrations. As Mrs. Atwal was busy in other quarters, he pinned it up himself and there in one corner, revealed as it unfurled, was a drawing of what might well have been Pooja’s own cube of a house with a woman in the yard crouched down milking a cow next to a pile of cow poop. A bold arrow swept across to the opposite corner of the sheet where she was now at her hearth, making chapattis over a cow dung flame. There was a cross under the picture. ‘She didn’t wash her hands,’ said Priya. A second arrow pursued the woman and several of her children down to the bottom of the chart where they were now very ill. Before Priya could say more, pandemonium broke out among her audience: a squall of jeering and laughter; a tableau of finger-pointing and gesticulation. Pooja got to her feet, barged her way out of the room and fled. She decided she would rather starve than go back there again.
But not long afterwards, the same people had rather less to laugh about. Her father swung in through the door one night waving a half-bottle of hooch. Her mother put her frying ladle aside: ‘What’s going on?’ she said.
‘Modi-ji, I love you!’ her husband cried, kissing the bottle as though it were the Prime Minister’s smooth forehead.
‘Modi-ji? You didn’t even vote for him.’
‘That’s not what you told me.’
‘If I say voted for him, I voted for him!’
Priya’s mother knew better than to contradict her husband when he had a half-bottle in his hand. ‘So what’s he done now?’ she asked as the man of the house collapsed on to a fraying charpoy.
‘He’s rationed LPG cooking cylinders to six a household. Six!’ He kissed the bottle again.
His wife stared at him blankly.’
‘No home in this village can manage on six, woman! They’re going to have to go back to the old ways. They’re going to need dung cakes.’
Pooja’s mother saw that he had a point, but she was cautious.
‘But how long for?’ she asked.
‘Who the hell knows? Let’s make hay! We’re going to be rich!’ And as befits the head of the household for whom, for once, things were going the right way, he took another mighty swig of the hooch and passed out.
They wasted no time. Pooja set to with a vengeance, shaping her dowry with her own bare hands. They couldn’t get the excrement out of the cows’ backsides and on to the wall to dry quick enough. They broke open the three stacks of dung cakes that had been standing sheathed in straw at the periphery of their land for the best part of three years and sold the entire contents in a matter of days. Her father put the prices of his products up on a daily basis. They bought a new cow with the profits to increase output. Pooja spent the entirety of every day on dung-related duties.
And, at last, she had a husband. With help, her father had put an advertisement in a couple of newspapers and had had an acceptable response from a decent distance away. Her excitement was beyond measure.
She faltered across the tiles in Delhi airport, her platform shoes making her unsteady on her feet. One arm was grasped firmly by her self-satisfied husband. Her equally smug parents-in-law were in step close behind. They were making the obligatory return trip to her parental home after her one week away.
She wore a flamboyant pink net lehenga and a tight orange choli covered in sequins. Her flaming dupatta flared with tinsel. Her lipstick was a violent red. But behind all this, she was a mass of bruised bewilderment. She felt swollen, raw, clumsy and immensely conspicuous. The boy had not been gentle with her, and when she’d protested, he’d pressed his hand over her mouth and pulled the covers over their heads. They’d barely exchanged a sentence since she’d arrived at his home. So here was another mystery that had befallen her. Apparently, she was supposed to submit herself to this bodily invasion for the foreseeable future. As she stumbled on to the escalator beside her husband, she already knew that she hated him.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the airport, Priya sat reading an article in New Woman on how to stay slim in your thirties. She had been on a junket to Ooty with some new friends. Now she was heading north to visit Nihal’s family.
Sad. Moving. I learned a lot.