The Paper Boat: Paresh Tiwari's Poignant Short Story That You Should Be Reading Right Now

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The Paper Boat: Paresh Tiwari's Poignant Short Story That You Should Be Reading Right Now

I yearn to take a boat to the middle of the river and find her again.

Ram Chandra Sharma sat at the table sorting letters, postcards, and parcels into neat little piles. Each of these piles belonged to an area near the Kashi Vishwanath temple and would be taken out for delivery by the postmen on duty. Sharma was a little over forty, rather full at the midriff and suffered from sciatica pain in his lower back. His condition made it difficult for him to sit, stand or do anything at a stretch. Of course, some of his colleagues believed he was just a lazy crook, and the back pain was a convenient tale of a phantom ailment, so that he wouldn’t need to move door to door under the cruel Varanasi sun.

He looked at the two jute sacks on the floor, bursting at the seams, and sent a curse heavenwards.

‘Started complaining first thing in the morning Sharma ji?’ the office boy said, placing a cup of tea on his table.

‘Watch your mouth, Murli. When have you ever heard me complain about anything?’

‘Every day of the week? Every hour of the day?’

‘Every hour? What cheek this boy has. Do I say a word when everyone in this office sits chit-chatting while I work my arse off? Do I grumble about that? Or about the heat in this place? Have you been to the Postmaster’s room? It’s a hill station in there.’ He took a sip of his tea and immediately spat it out. ‘Heck, do I even complain about this horse-piss you call tea?’

He was glad to see his co-workers nodding in begrudged agreement. The tea indeed was the worst one could find in the city.

‘You are one loud mouth mail-sorter.’

‘Was I born to be one? I was meant for other things, better things. But there’s only so much a postman’s son can dream of,’ Sharma grumbled before returning to the overflowing jute sacks.

By eleven in the morning, with the mail nearly sorted, Sharma had started planning his afternoon meal and siesta when a heavy envelope at the bottom of the last sack caught him off guard. It wasn’t the size or the weight of the package, or even the fact that it came in an expensive looking blue envelope, that caught his eye. It was instead the address, ‘To Mother Ganges, Varanasi’

Not a word more. ‘It’s a miracle it found its way to this table,’ he muttered to himself flipping the envelope thrice, willing it to cough up an address. In his two decades at the post office, he had never seen or heard of a package addressed to a river. He wondered if he was being set up in an elaborate joke. It was that or the possibility that someone had an immense amount of faith in the Indian Postal Service. Either way he didn’t know which pile should the letter belong to. So once the postmen on duty picked up their respective stacks, he slid the envelope into his table drawer.

Sharma was a creature of habit. All his life, he had done the known and the expected, and even though the package kept calling out to him, when his watch struck twelve, he spread out an old newspaper on the table and opened his three-tiered steel lunch box. The aroma of ghee and garlic tempered dal and jeera-rice filled up the office building. Deftly mixing the rice and the dal, he dug in with his fingers. Not for him were the spoons and the forks that young men and women preferred these days.

‘Food must satisfy all our senses,’ he would say to anyone who cared to listen, ‘including touch.’

He liked to take his time with food, chewing each bite meticulously the way he had practised as a young child. He was a hard man to please. His wife of eighteen years could count on fingers, the number of times he didn’t have a quibble or two about the meal. He finished his meal, wiped the table clean, cleaned out the lunch box under running water, rinsed his mouth and only then picked up the letter again. He turned it in his hand, looking for clues. The postal stamp carried the round seal of Ernakulam. Sharma knew it was in a city called Kochi. But that was hardly a clue to go on. There was no return address, not even the name of a sender. He racked his brains. What did the senders expect? Did they wish the letter to be abandoned on a step leading into the river? Or did they want the postman to offer it to the waves? He chuckled at the thought.

The post wasn’t registered, making it untraceable. He wondered if anyone would come to know if he sliced open the envelope to check the contents. He had seen other postmen pocketing valuables every now and then. But what if it was an office prank. Or worse still, a sting operation, to test his integrity. Of late, the news channels were going berserk, exposing corrupt officials and politicians everywhere. He didn’t like the idea of his face being plastered on every news daily of Varanasi. In this city, reputation was everything and he had one to maintain. In the end, he decided to take the safest course of action and turn it in to the Postmaster.

*

The Senior Postmaster of Kashi Vishwanath Head Post Office, Govind Ranjan was a worldly man, someone who didn’t believe in rocking the boat, and it had always worked well for him. Spitting out a red blob of betel nut juices into the wastebasket, he said, ‘Why are you so worried Sharma ji? Just toss it into the fire and forget about it. Don’t tell me you haven’t done it before.’

‘Those were different times,’ Sharma said, ‘a mobile camera today can topple governments, sir ji.’

‘What do you suggest we do then?’

‘Send it to the Return Letter Office. There seems to be no other valid course of action.’

‘And what will they do with this? There is no return address mentioned anywhere. All we know is it has come all the way from South India.’

‘Ernakulam sir.’

‘Everything south of Mumbai is South India, Sharma. Madras or Hyderabad, everything same to same. All people black as coal,’ Govind Ranjan spat out another blob of betel nut. ‘You burn it and forget about it.’

‘What if it’s a —’ Sharma leaned over the table, then whispered, ‘— you know, a sting operation?’

‘There are politicians out there with bundles of notes stuffed in every cistern in their bungalows. You think someone gives a damn about this post office?’

*

Sharma locked up the drawers of his table at four-thirty, placed the blue envelope in his satchel, gathered the lunch box, picked up the umbrella that doubled up as his walking stick and stepped out of the office. The sun outside was warm enough to warrant a cycle rickshaw. So he hired one and sat holding the bag close to his chest. The package was like a loose tooth by now, and his distracted tongue was forever inching towards it.

Once home, he picked up the sharpest knife from the kitchen and went straight to the guest room. Locking the door behind him, he pulled the envelope from his bag. He held it against the tube light, trying to judge where its contents lay, then placed it over the floor and sliced open an edge. Though he didn’t know what he expected to find inside, it definitely wasn’t a transparent polythene bag with a handful of pale grey ash and bone fragments. If there was one thing living in Varanasi all his life had taught him, it was to recognise the last charred remains of someone. He sank down on the floor, exhaling loudly. He hadn’t even realised that he had been holding his breath all this while. He knew instinctively what the sender meant by, ‘to Mother Ganges’.

Time plodded along like a snail, leaving a cold, wet trail behind.

Sharma sat on the floor, holding the last remains of someone he had never known in life, but now in death, was inexplicably linked to. Mrs Aarti Sharma, concerned that her husband had locked himself in the guest room without as much as a greeting, came to the door and knocked, softly at first but then with increasing urgency. It cost Sharma all his energy and willpower to open the door. Wiping the sweat off his face, he looked at his wife and mumbled, ‘I have some office work to take care of, would you mind getting me a cup of tea here?’ It wasn’t in Mrs Sharma’s nature nor in her upbringing to question her husband, so she turned and left without a word.

Closing the door behind her, Sharma placed the polybag filled with ashes on the study table, then turned the envelope upside down. A white sheet of paper slid out into his outstretched palm.

*

Sharma found it difficult to sleep that night. Long before first light, he slipped out of bed, careful not to make any sound that might disturb his wife, and ironed a white kurta for himself. He then bathed, and prepared two cups of tea. Pouring one cup in a flask for his wife, that he left it on the dining table, he carried the other to the rooftop.

The sky had begun to turn pale at the distant edges and though the sky was still dark, he could make out the outlines of the roofs fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. An arterial lane snaked and branched through this puzzle. He thought about the time when he knew every rooftop, every lane of the city. He had seen Varanasi through the eyes of Rumi. Together they had studied the poetry of every temple door, traced the curves of every mosque dome. They had once wanted to study art together. He took a sip of his tea and realised that it had gone cold.

By the time Mrs Sharma got out of the bed and discovered the flask of tea, her husband had left the house. She sat down on a chair cradling the flask in her hands, holding it to her breast like a treasure.

The city stirred to the sound of Sharma’s rubber slippers flip-flopping around its narrow lanes and alleyways. Stray dogs opened their eyes and looked at him curiously. He walked past men chewing on neem twigs and children bathing under the community taps. Sharma walked for around forty minutes – through the rising din of the city waking up, through the rising pain in his lower back - before he reached the stone steps of Assi ghat.

Ghats, here in Varanasi, meant more than a flight of steps leading into the river. They were a complex systems of existence and faith. In fact, some said that the word Varanasi itself had originated from two names, river Varuna and Assi, a small stream nearby. There were eighty-eight ghats in the city, each with its own stories and mythologies. Each with its own set of rituals and significance for the devotees.

At one end of the ghat, a group of tonsured women sat chanting vedic mantras around a sacrificial fire. A few men sat in meditative pose. In another corner, a group of musicians had started setting up their instruments – veena, tabla, manjeera and dhol. At the bottom of the stairs where the river lapped at the stone steps, Sharma hired a boat and climbed in. As the boat glided over the sound of water slapping water, the sun rose up in the sky. A faint glow over the distant bank at first and then ushered in by a crescendo of birdsong. With the Ganges bathed in the gold and fire of a new day, Varanasi enlivened to the ritual of the morning prayers. The steps of the ghat were now teeming with devotees. Priests in silk loin clothes held up elaborate deepam in one hand – each with a hundred lit oil lamps – and brass bells in the other.

The boatman sang under his breath as he rowed. He crooned the song of a river and that of lovers who tried to cross it in a boat made of paper. His voice was sad and warm, like a patchwork quilt on a cold winter night, and Sharma felt tears brim in the corner of his eyes. He took the blue envelope from the pocket of his kurta, and read the anonymous letter again.

April 9, 2007
The day after her death, the world somehow manages to remain just the same.

The summer sun spills in through the slatted windows. A pressure cooker somewhere whistles its impatience. No one has even rebuked the koel for her songs today. Even the radio has woken up with a love song. Imagine the insolence.
Sia and I grew in the city of Varanasi. On the stone steps of Assi, we had watched the Ganga ripple to the sound of temple bells, and a thousand floating lamps mirror the night sky. On one such night in a gently heaving boat, her fingers reached out for mine without a preamble. We fell in love long before being gay was either acceptable or fashionable. We had to leave the city of our childhood behind and we could never return.

And now she has left me. Alone. Broken. Sinking. I yearn to take a boat to the middle of the river and find her again. I wish I could return her to the waves, the only place she truly belonged.

Sharma buried his face in the letter and wept. Whether he wept for the two girls or for himself, he had no way of knowing. But he wept. Possibly for love and loss and death. He scattered Sia’s ashes and watched on as the current took her away, holding her in an infinite embrace. Finally, he folded the unsigned letter into a paper boat and entrusted it to the river.

***

Poet, artist, and editor Paresh Tiwari has been widely published, especially in the sub-genre of Japanese poetry. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has appeared in several publications, including the anthology by Sahitya Akademi, ‘Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians’ released to celebrate 200 years of Indian English Poetry. ‘Raindrops chasing Raindrops’, his second haibun collection was awarded the Touchstone Distinguished Books Award in the year 2017. Paresh has co-edited the landmark International Haibun Anthology, Red River Book of Haibun, Vol 1 which was published by Red River Publications in 2019. He is also the serving haibun editor of the online literary magazine Narrow Road.

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