Kamala had come to Hirakpur with no lofty dreams. Dreams had forsaken her a long time ago. It had been six months that she arrived at Jabalpur station holding her daughter Kanchan to her breast, alongside Bablu, with their earthly belongings knotted together in a pink sari. While they waited she could trace Kanchan's rattle, a photo of Lord Hanuman within a broken frame and a box with her glass bangles pressed against the pregnant potli. A fly sat on Kanchan's face. A dog came and sniffed their bag. Both to be shooed away by Bablu who kept looking towards the end of the platform where an obstinate red light held the fort. At the other, as the light turned yellow a dusty engine pulled into the station huffing and puffing, declaring its unwillingness to go much further to the eager spectators.
The train took three days to reach Hirakpur. It crawled through a sand storm, shuddered in a squall and chugged along unaffected by verdant maize fields.Kamala split open her last orange. She untangled the fruit from the fibre, fed some pulp to Kanchan, gave Bablu a few pieces and ate the rest herself. Her eyes squinted.
Hirakpur was an hour-long walk from the railway station. Bablu carried Kanchan and the potli. Kamala held a small can of water and kept one end of the sari tightly clenched between her teeth. The wind stung against her skin like warm needles but she could smell a strange excitement brewing within her. This was the first time in her eighteen years that she had stepped out of Jabalpur. This must be what hope felt like. It felt oddly similar to terror.
They stopped to ask a man squatting on the wall of a compound, fiddling with his phone. "Ramlal..." Bablu mumbled, looking into a piece of paper in his hand. "I am from Ramlal's village. Is this his Camp?" he stuttered. The man shot him a look and his gaze quickly turned to Kamala who was looking into the distance, a trick she had perfected over the years. He eyed the infant in Bablu's arm and asked "Who is asking?" as he jumped off the wall and stood in front of them, blocking the way to the gate. Magenta trousers, sky blue shirt unbuttoned till his navel.
"My name is Bablu."
"And this?" he pointed at Kamala, who by now had pulled the sari over her face.
"This is my wife, sir. If you could just tell us, we will be on our way."
"What's the hurry, eh?" he smiled, revealing his love for betel leaves. "Yes, this is Camp 29. Come with me."
A bonfire in the middle of the Camp made crackling noises, as smoke climbed up towards the ghost of the moon. "Kanhaiya! I have brought you your guests".
Magenta trousers passed the baton to a small shirtless man, smoking a bidi. Kanhaiya looked at Kamala, the child and then Bablu. "I have been waiting for you, where were you since yesterday?", he finally spoke.
"Brother, our train got held up at …"
"Brother? Who is a brother here? Don’t give me these lofty titles. We are all here to look after ourselves. Do you understand?"
Kanhaiya shrugged and walked ahead. He looked back to see if his new guests were following him. Magenta trousers-sky blue shirt kept looking till they disappeared. The posse went through a narrow gully, with sheds on both sides. The doors of these sheds were open, and most of them had men sitting around. Some watched videos on their phones. Some played music on a transistor. The transistor was just like the one that Kamala had had at home. The home where they were no longer welcome. The home that had no place for them. The home that was nothing but a crumbling building on the flanks of a drying pond in a godforsaken town three and a half days away.
By the time they reached their room, it was already dark but when Kanhaiya entered he switched on a light. This also marked the start of a rattling noise. Bablu looked around to find its origin when he started feeling warm air being blown their way. "Egg-shost." That's what Tulsi called it. The men left the room with no ceremony and Kamala was finally alone. She pulled down the sari from her head. As she looked around her tiny kingdom, a hint of a smile surfaced. A small window where the exhaust fan whirred tricked some drafts of cool moonlit air to enter the room.
Within the next few days, the family settled into their life at Camp 29. Bablu was at the mine from eight in the morning till sunset. A small wooden choolah was positioned outside their room, some pots and pans were acquired from other migrants who were moving on for the season - bric-a-brac, a shelf to put their worldly belongings and a window ledge where Hanuman’s smiling face was proudly placed. With an electric blue backdrop within the confines of the rickety frame Lord Hanuman looked peacefully at her: his palm facing her, sending candy floss rays of blessing. She offered incense fuelled prayers, bowing her head in obeisance - prayers for her family’s safety every day. The gully where they lived housed two other families. Tulsi lived in the room at the entrance of the lane. A sheepish grin and some borrowed wood for the hearth marked the start of their friendship.
The hues of spring suited Camp 29. The sky was pink and the trees shed their weight to the aching ground. But that afternoon as the women put out the wooden flames, they saw a frantic Kanhaiya run back from the mine. He was breathless as he ran into his shed.
"Go home, go home! There is an illness in the air. If you wait long enough, you will be stuck here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you."
Kamala pulled her sari over her head, her mouth biting into one end of it. He left a trail of dust behind him. Nothing happened after that. But a quiet silence sunk into the Camp interrupted only by a distant bleat.
Kamala could not sit still in her room. Kanchan was fast asleep in her make-shift cradle made out of the potli - pink, with memories of flowers and a faraway smile. The heat was rising in the room as if the desert had encroached upon it. Wiping her perspiration, she worried about Bablu. Was he okay? He was at the mines. What illness was this? Why would Kanhaiya be so distraught?
Tulsi opened the door. "Sister, come in. The wind is terrible outside," she said as she held Kishen closer to her chest.
Kishen her six-month-old slept throughout the day. People in the Camp had strange things to say about that, but Kamala never believed them.
"What is going on? Did you hear about the illness? You think the men are fine?" Kamala opened her box of questions.
"That Kanhaiya! Don't believe a word he says. He is a prankster," Tulsi said as she swayed the child softly.
Kamala looked around her friend's room. A cot on one side, some utensils in the corner and a suitcase covered with a cloth where she kept a talcum powder, a mirror and a soap; Used, wilted, cracked on the surface. White bangles rested on the suitcase too. All stacked up like a tower reaching towards a higher power, balanced precariously. There was a knock on the door. The women looked at each other, and Kamala went forward to open it. Ramesh stood there caked in dust, unravelling his headgear, reams of strawberry. He looked like a ghost, powdered for a play.
"What is happening, brother?" Kamala asked. "Where is Bablu?"
"We have all been sent back home told to go to our village," he said as he bent to enter his home.
"Where is Bablu?" Kamala asked again. Tulsi continued to hum softly to Kishen.
Bablu had come home at the same time as Ramesh. He was pacing up and down at the doorstep by the time Kamala returned.
"Kamala, where were you?"
"Bablu, what is happening, can you tell me, please?" Kamala's eyebrows knitted, a film of sweat on her face.
The desert from inside the room had spilt outside. Bablu wiped his brow with a cloth that he used as headgear. He looked at Kamala's eyes. Brown melting into a sad green. Like stagnant water. Like a dead snake.
"There is a disease which has reached the cities and spreading fast. In Dilli too."
"When did this happen? What will we do?"
"They are shutting the mine. There will be no work from tomorrow, they told us. It will go on like this for three weeks. Three weeks of no work, no pay. All shops will close too."
"Is it like a curfew?" Kamala looked around to dissipate her nervousness, she remembered stories about the curfew from her father.
"They are shutting all schools, offices. No one can be outside. That’s all that I know.”
"Bablu," Kamala whispered. "Should we go back?"
"They said the trains are shut Kamala, how do we go? And, what do we go back to?"
"What has Hanuman-ji put in our way now? What will we do? Tulsi's village is just fifty kilometres away. They will go, I am sure."
“Ramesh was already speaking to the men who live near his village. They are thinking of going together.”
“And us? What about us? Where will we get food for Kanchan?”
"Don't worry, I will ask around. Kanchan is awake. Go and look after her"
The next day Ramesh, Bablu and a few others went to mine as usual in the morning. But the gates were shut, there were two security guards there who tried to shoo them away.
“But our money, the Saheb has our salaries for last month. How can we forget that?” Ramesh spoke aloud, the others quietly nodded.
“We are employees like you. We don’t know about your money. The Saheb is in the city now, ” the stout one spoke, rubbing his palm against the butt of the rifle he was carrying.
Tulsi told Kamala of their plans of returning to the village as soon as Ramesh implied it. Kamala played with the edges of her sari.
"When will you leave?"
"This evening... We have fields at home. Ramesh said it's better to work there than work here. There is no money also"
"We have nowhere to go to."
"You can go back to your village, sister."
"It took us three days by train to come here. We can't think of walking"
"I would take you with me. You and Kanchan. But you know how things are." Tulsi looked at Kamala with sparkling eyes, stars for helplessness.
"It's not your fault. It's not…" Kamala choked on her words.
Tulsi took her palm, placed a crushed note on it. It unfolded in Kamala's faded palms, lines of fate slowly giving up.
"This is for you. I will leave behind grains. I have two kilograms of wheat, some onions and some potatoes. You can have it. You keep it."
Kamala looked down at her palm. Five hundred rupee. The price of an apology.The price of a goodbye.
Tulsi, Ramesh with some of the miners had managed to convince a container van going east to take them till the border. They offered him a goat and some sacks of rice as payment. Their shadows in the moonlight moved ahead of them; ghostly companions on their way back to a dead town.
The ration lasted a week. Birhua had started noticing Bablu's restlessness at the meeting area. He would leer at Kamala from a distance when she would make her way to the water pump. Kamala would un-see him with his cackle of hyenas from the corner of her eye; hair tinted blonde, spitting tangerine on tar.
One evening when Bablu was at the bonfire he visited Kamala.
"Where is Bablu? Out somewhere?" he innocently asked while he tried to peek into the room.
"He has gone out," Kamala pulled her sari over her head as she came to the door.
"If you need something for the child, just ask me. I have a fridge."
He stood there and scratched his collarbones as he looked around the room.
"We will be fine," Kanchan looked at the gully, hoping Bablu would appear.
"Just ask me. You can take me for a friend. I noticed you the first day you got here."
Kamala stepped back and Bablu's face appeared under the street bulb that lit up the gully.
It had been ten days, Kamala was down to her last potato. She had wheat for another two days, but Kanchan would need rice soon. Bablu went foraging in the nearby shops where they had already run out supplies the last time he went. In a village nearby there was a cart that was going to the nearest town the next day. He paid for a seat.
Bablu woke up to the call of the rooster the next morning. The sky was indigo. He poured himself some water into a small container and opened the door to leave.
"When will you be back?" Kamala was still lying down, despite having woken up with the rooster's call.
"Maybe it will take two days. I don't know if I will meet Ramlal but he lives there."
"Kanchan has no food. We have no food. There has to be someone who helps us."
"I know, Kamala"
"How would you know? Do you know how our food has lasted us this long? Do you ask if our child has eaten? If your wife has had a roti? Do you know where the last batch of grains came from?"
"Kamala, I am trying..."
“You are not trying hard enough. Where is this Ramlal? We have not once seen him since the time we got here? Is he even real?"
"I will try and do something. Kamala, sleep now, you are waking Kanchan up with this chaos."
"It is the hunger that keeps her awake". Kamala’s gaunt face flickered under the light of the lantern.
Kamala rummaged for herbs and leaves nearby that she could mix and feed Kanchan, but there was nothing to be seen around. As the sun travelled northwards, there was no trace of clouds in the eerily blue sky. She walked around the room, as Kanchan wailed, tears streaming down from the chinks of her eyes, on the faded pink sari. Kamala thought she would boil some leftover rice, but on turning the tap, she noticed that it had gone dry. The wailing child. The tiny window. The desert in the room. She straightened her sari and walked out of her room. A left, a right and then straight. This was a gully that she avoided.
Birhua didn't seem surprised to see Kamala at his door. Standing there, ablaze in magenta.
"I have no food in the house. I need food" she said, her eyes wide open.
A crow called out in the distance, and the wind hummed a saudade. Birhua smiled.
"Would you like some Pepsi?"
She stepped into his room, it smelled of jasmine and paan. It did not have a desert. She looked around. It was larger than theirs and it had a tube light, a ceiling fan, a television, a gas cylinder with a stove and a small fridge. He walked over to his fridge and opened a bottle of Pepsi with an opener which doubled up as a keychain. She declined, but he insisted. She declined, he held it near her face. She took it from him and took a gulp. She felt the bubbles tide over her heart, and she took a few quick sips to douse her shame for coming this far.
"Kanchan is all alone, I have to go back. I need some food. He has gone to the big village. He will take time to return. There is no water…"
"Shhh….," Birhua smiled "You have come to the right place. Do you know why I don't help people here? They are ungrateful pigs. You help today, tomorrow they are knocking down your door trying to burn you down. They forget. So I decided not to interfere. But you… aha! You are different."
Kamala looked away. "What do you have?" she asked.
"Can you please…"
"It gets lonely in the desert here. You must think - what am I doing here, with no woman, no family. No woman wants to come here, what do I do? In this desert, with these winds haunting your days, who will want to come here?" his gaze was transfixed on her face as he spoke.
Kamala put her head down. She had heard talk about Birhua. He had been spotted with the dancers of the travelling show that moved from village to village. The dancers in these troupes were rarely women. Till last year he had one such ‘woman' staying with him in the camp too. But Kamala always trusted these to be rumours. Now here he was, with his canary shirt, the nail of his little finger long, painted red.
"But look at you. You are here. You came with your husband and your child. And you make do." he went on.
"I want 5 kilograms of wheat, 2 kilograms rice, 2 kilograms lentils, and a bottle of Dalda." She holds out a crumpled note in her palm, he looked at it and shook his head.
"Look around you. You think I need your money?"
"I can't give you anything more" she stuttered.
"You don't have to. Let us work something out."
He held her by her wrist, but she recoiled. Her heart beat like a drum and she was afraid that he could hear it. She thought of Kanchan in her pink cradle. She thought of the noisy fan in her room and the taste of hunger.
"Spend half an hour in my room and my friends will think I am gold. I will give you all those things you asked for."
Kamala's eyebrows furrowed on this strange request.
"They give me a very hard time here. And if I can prove to them that I am a real man, you can get all your supplies."
Kamala squirmed against the wall as he continued.
"You don’t have to do anything, just sit here. Watch some tv, drink your Pepsi and you can leave."
Kamala knew what she was willing to offer when she entered the room of jasmine, paan and aerated treats. She almost felt bad for Birhua now and nodded. She stood up, went to the door and shut it behind her.
When Bablu returned after three days, he brought with him a big bag, victory etched cheek to cheek.
"I found Ramlal after 2 days" he said breathlessly. "The village people returned the same day but I just couldn't. I called him continuously until he picked up."
"What did he have to say? Should we leave for home?" Kamala asked.
"No chance, unless we are looking to walk. He said this will last for another 2 weeks and there is no scope to move. He gave me some money and also recharged my phone. He said everything was fine in the village."
"What did you get?" she smiled.
"Enough for the next two weeks. We won't go hungry again."
Bablu's tired smile brightened the room at dusk and he got up from the doorstep to lie down on the cot. From one end of the cot, his eye meandered to the kitchen shelves. He noticed that the supplies were full. There was rice, wheat, milk powder, lentils and potatoes lying there. He looked at Kamala who had picked up the bag and was looking through the contents. Bablu looked at Kanchan sleeping and wondered how the child slept so often these days. At such long intervals.
The next morning Kamala woke up to a din. She rose from the cot, pulled the sari over her head and went to the doorstep. People scurried about in haste. She saw Harpal go by and called him to the window.
"Don't you know? They found Birhua in the fields. His head was smashed against a rock and hyenas were feeding on him by the morning."
Kamala pulled the edge of her sari between her teeth to stop herself from crying out.
"He doesn't deserve your sadness, sister. That bastard hoarded everything. His room is like a palace. And to think of it we had starving women and children in the Camp, he said not a word to anyone."
Kamala kept staring at Harpal.
"Where is Bablu? Did he return from Mandi? Send him to Birhua's room, we are all taking things from there. Someone said there is Pepsi in his fridge".
Sudeepta Sanyal is a writer based out of Goa and Mumbai, India. She is the co-founder of a travel company The Blueberry Trails. Her written work has been published in The Bombay Review, Lucky Jefferson and Spark magazine. She is a 2019 alumni of Dum Pukht Writer's workshop in Pondicherry.
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