It is evening again when Shiv wakes up on the warm sand and hears the boatman call out to him. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees another figure, no, two, approach the boat. He sits up slowly, shakes the sand off his limbs and shields his eyes from the descending sun. Short story by Sucharita Dutta-Asane
The boatman waves out to him, calls out his name once again.
The boatman waves out to him, calls out his name once again.
Shiv gets up on his feet – unhurried, deliberate – and slouches towards the boat, his eyes on its curved bottom rising out of the water. Broken off, jagged words float around him, the dying embers of an argument.
He looks at the strangers’ backs. A hulking man and a young boy; the boy picks smooth pebbles out of the sand.
‘Where to?’ He asks the stranger’s back.
The man turns around swiftly. Shiv knows him – the island’s gravedigger.
The man studies him for some time then turns to the boatman. ‘Chalo.’ He steps into the boat.
Shiv notices his friend’s reluctance. ‘Where?’ He asks again, his tone lazy and deliberate.
‘The island.’ The man rasps out the syllables, his tone too familiar, too condescending as if Shiv should know.
On their feet, the boy dives at a brown and green frog, his shirttail flaps in the wind. A pulse beats erratically at Shiv’s throat. ‘With him?’ He asks, pointing to the boy.
The man looks at the boy, his gaze suddenly tender. ‘We live there; he, I and the graves.’
The boy looks up and smiles. His smile is friendly… a canine broken… an old accident. The sand beneath Shiv’s feet shifts, it sucks in his toes and his heels. He drags his feet out of the sand and steps towards the boy then steps back.
He turns upon the gravedigger. ‘You stole him!’
‘Stole?’ The man turns around and faces the river, as if spitting the words out at the water. ‘Stole, you say? He came to me, floating on the river, almost dead, barely seven years old, less.’ Light sinks into the man’s eyes. ‘I took care of him; from a gravedigger I turned into a father. Stole, he says!’ The man spits into the river.
Shiv was in the toilet when he heard the rumble. There was a long noisy queue outside the toilet door; he could have hurried up but his stomach was cramping so he continued to squat. The low rumble approached closer; it was a matter of minutes. Outside, men yelled for him to hurry up, women called out to their children to stay out of the bulldozer’s way, children squealed.
Would they have time to salvage their belongings?
He wanted to get out but his stomach failed him. Hunched inside the stink-hole, Shiv thought about the first time he had seen a bulldozer roll towards their new settlement. Fresh from the village where the soil had dried up along with the sky, he had gaped as the machine calmly brought down the shacks, leaving him with barely enough time to recover what he could. Afterward, he stood feeling lost and helpless by the roadside until Faisal led him away to another shanty.
Outside, the queue cursed loudly.
This time he was prepared.
There are queues everywhere in the city – in front of toilets, at bus stops, schools, colleges, hospitals, clinics, shops, even hotels . Shiv wipes his hand on his apron and watches the lunch crowd jostle for space, waiting for their chance at the tables scattered in the hotel’s huge dining area.
It is his second month in this hotel – one free meal and some cash for waiting tables and cleaning vessels, enough for him to survive, until he feels restless again and quits the job.
The sound of incessant chatter floats from the dining area into the kitchen and blends with the clanking of vessels, the flow of running water, the chatter of cooks and waiters, and periods of sudden silence that cushion these. Shiv yearns to be back under the open sky, as in his boyhood when the clouds floated dark and swollen over the fields and home, was a dilapidated permanence.
He rinses the plate in his hand, turns off the tap and leans against the counter. Others are busy at work, talking, laughing, chopping, blending… He ambles up to the boy cutting vegetables, younger than him, always cheerful.
‘Sex on my mind,’ the boy laughs.
Shiv moves away. He doesn’t feel up to it and thinks instead of the river at the city’s edge, its trees, and birds, deer he’s seen there. One thought leads to another and he smiles to himself as he takes up another pile of dishes for cleaning. He could live on a tree near the river. As soon as he thinks of it, the image fills him with urgency. Why not? There must be people who do that? The freedom, the unshackled tree life. He would have to guard against snakes of course, and insects, but that is easier than guarding against bulldozers.
He shivers with anticipation.
Bamboo and grass, some wooden planks, a couple of asbestos
sheets, and of course, a tiny fan for the summer. The riverside could get very hot during the day; he could read in his tree house. He has no books but he knows a pavement bookseller who has promised to lend him books once in a while. Perhaps he could borrow at the beginning of the month, when the payment is still fresh in his pockets, before the temptresses with their red lips and heaving bosoms beckon, before fresh movie releases catch his attention.
The tree house takes shape in his mind.
‘What are you grinning for?’ The boy with sex on his mind asks. ‘Coming along? New dishes to try, I’ve heard. Fresh.’ He winks.
Shiv shakes his head.
After their father died, Shiv left school and took up what his father had given up. Between ploughing and sowing, between sowing and waiting for the rains, he took to reading the books his sister would get for him, live other lives, fight the misery that the sky and soil had contrived to bring into their lives.
‘It’s not just the sky and soil, Shiva,’ his sister said, trying to explain the workings of the government, of middlemen who exploited them, of loans and interests, everything but what his mother called fate. ‘Don’t trust fate,’ his sister insisted.
After his mother died, he gave up farming.
A boatman polishes his boat by the river. The clouds are low and fluffy. Shiv asks the boatman for a ride down the river, as far as he is willing to take him.
As the boatman begins to pull out, Shiv watches his stomach muscles contract under a tattered vest, his biceps bulge, forehead crease as he looks at the sky and the sun and pulls the oars through the water.
‘How much do you earn in a day?’ Shiv asks.
‘Why sahib? Do you want to bring in competition?’ The boatman smiles.
‘No. Just. Is it enough?’
‘Depends on what is “enough” for you.’
Shiv looks around and dips his hands in the cool water. The river runs straight for a short distance then turns away from the city.
‘Nice life. Open sky, water. And silence.’
‘When the river floods, its noise is frightening,’ the boatman says.
‘Not more frightening than the sound of a bulldozer.’
‘Where do you live, sahib?’
The boatman ponders over the answer for a while.
‘I lived in this boat for many days and nights, till I built my own shack. Nobody troubles us here, not much.’ He doesn’t tell his passenger that once in a while they do; before elections, before VIP visits, when they want the riverside clean and beautiful.
‘Have you lived in a tree?’
‘Tree?’ The boatman looks at him with apprehension. ‘I make my living on this water, sahib. At the end of the day, I need to feel the hard ground beneath my feet.’
‘That’s slipping from under my feet.’ Shiv mutters. The boatman peers at his face, trying to read his lips.
‘What’s troubling you, sahib?’
Shiv wishes the boatman would stop calling him sahib. He is no sahib, just a homeless hotel worker whose clothes are always well washed and ironed.
A silver fish streaks light under the water. He watches it glide away, mesmerised and elated by that flash of life, of possibilities. He sits back and watches the river’s flow, the reflection of birds over its smoothness, the hint of teeming life underwater.
Ahead, an island looms dark, its sides rising from the water in jagged lines of rock and roots.
Fascinated, Shiv asks the boatman to take him there.
‘Don’t go there, sahib. Nobody goes there, nobody good.’
Shiv laughs. ‘I am bad. Chalo. Let’s go.’
The boatman bends forward as he rows. He speaks in a singsong tone that carries the river’s rhythm.
‘I grew up on that island. It was full of trees you won’t see now. Deer, foxes, birds… fishes in the ponds. Life was good.’
His eyes are memory-glazed, happy memories, memories that leave sorrow in their wake.
He looks longingly at the island and slowly, with the present gliding away from his eyes, he tells Shiv how the river began to eat up the land, small bites then big pieces, a little every year, to this day. He tells him about the flood that drowned the island for a season, of how the people from its villages fled to the mainland and scattered like rice grains.
‘I became a boatman, some took to fishing, to carpentry; we went our ways, different from what we wanted before the flood.’
The boat moves noiselessly except for the gentle sound of oar-splashed water. Shiv looks behind him and sees the wide expanse, not a soul in sight, only the mid-river hush and the soft call of birds in the distance.
‘The island seems intact.’
‘Yes, it rose out of the water again. The river still nibbles; where we lived the island is shrinking. But those mangroves you see…’
Tangled roots and dark foliage. The trees are dark green and fruitless.
‘Those groves are not for children to play but human beings to be buried, hidden away.’
Shiv sits up straight. Hidden away? He looks at the trees again and raises an eyebrow. ‘What do you mean?’
The boatman’s voice drops.
‘Underworld,’ he hisses, ‘sometimes, the police. They bring people for burying here.’ His voice is barely audible as he quietly rows away from the mangroves towards the other edge.
On a good day, Shiv takes an hour to reach the island by boat. Sometimes, halfway to the island, he dives into the river and swims, soaking in the cool water, drying off on the rocks or a tree stump. He avoids the mangrove-edge and wonders, every time, how nobody has thought of inhabiting this island.
He’ll be the first man, he thinks, the first man to live here. Adimanav. He laughs into the wind.
He has chosen the tree where he wants to build his house.
Given a good season in the hotel he could save enough to buy a tiny boat, or make one, with the boatman’s help.
The slum is tiny, not more than fifty people, and nestles in the shadows of the abandoned jute mill. On one side, the road runs straight and wide towards the airport. The sound of planes taking off and landing keeps Shiv and his neighbours awake at nights. Flush against the mill’s compound, away from the street, bulldozers crouch as if for a cue.
Shiv drags his cot out of his shack and places it near the mill wall. He sits cross-legged on the cot with a plate of biryani given by the hotel. It is spicy and dripping ghee, a bonus for his efficient handling of the birthday party the hotel had hosted.
Faisal shuffles up to him on his crutches. ‘Did you hear?’
‘We have to vacate.’
Shiv stands up suddenly; the biryani spills on the ground, its aroma suffusing the night air. Above them, a plane cuts loudly through the sky.
‘Bastards!’ Shiv roars. ‘What are we? Vermins? Don’t we need to stay in one place?’
Faisal is shocked at his response. They have known each other for many years, always moving together, sharing rooms, sometimes food. Faisal knows his friend to be quiet, thoughtful, his nose in some book or the other, away from the daily squabbles that litter their lives.
‘We can’t do anything about it.’ He looks back at the mill. ‘That’s been lying idle; the owners have sold it to some developer.’
Shiv kicks viciously at a dog sniffing at the biryani. ‘I won’t live like this.’
‘Then don’t. Go buy one of those flats for the rich. Go!’
Shiv goes to bed on an empty stomach. Dogs, cockroaches and ants feast on the biryani.
When the first huts begin to crumble, Shiv takes his cot, ties it to his tin trunk and walks out. As he turns the corner where the airport road curves towards the city, he stops. Cars and buses whizz past. He thinks of Faisal on crutches, of those with families, old relatives, children, the new families who settled down only the previous day.
Behind him, he hears shouting.
He turns back.
His neighbours crowd around the bulldozer.
He runs up to Faisal. ‘What happened?’
‘They are not willing to move.’
The face-off drags through the day; day drags into night, and then a couple more.
It is midnight when Shiv returns from work. He has spent the morning working on his tree house, tightening the ropes around it, fixing the corrugated sheet he found on the river sand. He waited for somebody to claim it; when it continued to tempt him, lying alone and unclaimed on the sand, he carried it to his tree.
In the night’s silence, as he walks wearily home, he hears the crackle of fire before he sees the flames.
Shadows run around the burning hutments, trying to douse the fire with water they haul from municipal taps.
Shiv stands, bewildered.
He continues to stand and stare until his mind begins to function again.
The huts cannot be saved he knows, but the future has to be secured, others made to understand, convinced. They could build their lives again, permanently this time. He will convince them to move with him to safer land.
The boatman pulls up to the island and heaves a sigh, he wipes the sweat off his forehead. His boat can carry ten persons at a time. This time it has ferried twelve adults and five children; every ripple seemed to threaten the boat and its passengers. As the boat rocks to a halt, the boatman helps his passengers off, one by one. A little boy, around five years old, cowers in the far corner. He lifts the child out of the boat and looks around for his parents.
‘He is alone,’ Shiv speaks up behind him, ‘no family.’
The boatman holds the child close to his chest before handing him over to Shiv.
The others disembark, single file. A little imbalance and the boat will topple. After the last person leaves and Shiv pays him, the boatman sits back and watches the men, women and children make their slow and unsure way inland, away from the river, under the sparse trees on this side of the island, among the boulders the river had left behind where his village had once been. What would they do if discovered here?
He lights a beedi, draws long and hard at it, and as he takes hold of the oars again, he turns back to look once more at those he has transported. On a rock ledge above the water, Shiv stands with the orphan beside him, waving out to him.
At night, the island is plunged in darkness. Only the moon lights the way on open ground. Around the boulders and trees, the night leaves no shadows.
Shiv leans against a huge Gulmohar tree, the orphan beside him.
‘What’s your name?’ He asks.
The little boy looks up at him. ‘My mother?’
Faisal comes to sit with them. ‘Where did you find him? Whose son?’
‘I didn’t see any family; he was sitting near the tubewell, crying, alone.’
‘What if they are looking for him now?’
‘I couldn’t have left him alone and unattended, among dead bodies and charred huts. If he had a family, they would have looked for him by the time we left.’
At a short distance from where they sit, the women have built a fire for cooking. The sight of the fire, its distant warmth makes him shiver, reminds him of the neighbours who refused to come away, leaving instead for uncertain futures once again. Fools! He spits into the hard roots of the tree.
The two men are in suits despite the heat. The men behind them wear lungis and vests. Shiv knows them. He’s watched them under the cover of darkness. He watches them now as they stride towards the tiny settlement, one end of their waists bulging with the firearms he knows they conceal. He watches them question other men at work in the fields and sees them point towards him.
When the men appear at his doorstep he gets up from the step where he was squatting, his eyes level with theirs.
‘What are you doing here?’ They ask.
‘Making a living.’
‘How did you find out about this island?’
He hears the menace in their tone. ‘Need, desperation, same as you.’
He watches the surprise replaced quickly with belligerence.
‘You can’t live here.’
‘We have run from several places, we won’t run from here. Here to stay. We’re not interested in what you do in your part of the island. You needn’t worry yourself about us.’
The men stare at him. He holds their gaze. ‘The island is big enough to accommodate our needs. We won’t trouble you.’
‘How do we trust you?’
‘We don’t want to draw attention; neither do you.’
Where Shiv stands, the land drops away a few hundred feet to the river’s swell. He wanders among the saplings and poles, touches their tender leaves, the hardening trunks. Next year they will spread out their leaves and roots, hold the gullible soil.
Behind him, the orphan tugs at his lungi. Shiv smiles and draws him close for an instant before pushing him away. ‘Go, run.’ He smiles to himself as he watches the child gambol across the soft, yielding ground.
It’s night. The island is black. Shiv and Faisal face each other by the side of the boulder that tilts towards the river. They stare into each other’s faces, deciphering answers under a dull moon. Shiv sinks to the ground. Where could the child have disappeared? He looks up at Faisal. ‘Shall we go to the other side?’
‘No use now. Tomorrow, after the sun comes up. He couldn’t have gone there, anyway.’
Unspoken thoughts hang heavy between them. Below them, the river roars, its anger made more potent by the night.
At the other end of the island, the graves are soggy with too much water, crawling with monsoon life. Shiv and Faisal have reached early. At the far end, where the graveyard gathers its dead, a reed cottage sags under the weight of water. No one around. Shiv knows who lives there, the gravedigger, a giant of a man with shoulders muscled and hunched from too much digging. The man is nowhere to be seen. It is impossible for the kid to travel across the island to this jungle. He slips off the trunk where he is perched. He’s already lost this battle and the sense of failure weighs heavy on him. Had he saved the child to give him a watery grave?
The trees are strong.
Shiv ties his hair in a long ponytail. When he leaves it loose, it spreads across his shoulders and frames his face. From where he stands, he can see the river spread out in all its beauty, a massive sinew of water that could bestow life or take it away. The sun glistens on its surface. Next to him, his son aims pebbles at the water, his eyes and eyebrows crunched in concentration as the flat stones frogleap across the shining surface.
They wait for the boat. Shiv has promised to take his little boy to the movies.
‘Look, boat!’ His son calls out.
Shiv shields his eyes from the sun and peers at the shimmering water. The boatman waves out. Father and son walk down towards the water’s edge and get into the waiting craft. The boatman waves the boy away. He wants some time alone with Shiv.
‘What is it?’ Shiv asks. He can see the frown creasing the boatman’s brow.
‘A woman came to my house last week. She’ll come tomorrow again.’
Shiv sits quietly, waiting for him to continue.
‘She is looking for her son.’
The river gurgles. The boat gently rocks. In the distance, a flock of geese fly away noisily.
‘She has been looking for her son for a long time,’ the boatman says. ‘Someone directed her to the riverside, to me.’
Shiv drags a twig through the water.
‘What will you say?’
‘Why do you presume she’s his mother?’
‘She showed me his photograph.’
The woman is short and dusky; she has her boy’s eyes.
Shiv looks at the photograph she holds out to him.
‘He would have been 14 this year. We were visiting my sister when we lost him.’ Tears well up in her eyes. Shiv looks away at the placid water.
‘Did you see him the day of the fire?’
‘Afterwards.’ He fumbles for words. ‘I picked him up… he was… alone at the time, no one… so I,-’
‘You’re a saviour!’ She drops at his feet, her hands clasped in supplication. ‘Take me to him please.’
He steps back. ‘I can’t.’
She gets up slowly as he tells her how he searched the island for her boy, that he was sure the river claimed him.
The woman stares wildly at him then she spits out three words. ‘You killed him!’
‘What right did you have to take him away? I would have returned for him. You killed my son!’ She shrieks.
‘I’m sorry.’ He whispers over and over and over again.
The wind moans loudly, a ceaseless monotone.
‘You could have left word with someone, something to help me trace him.’ Her voice is a mere trace in the wind.
‘There was no one to carry my message; I had no way of knowing of your existence.’
‘You could have returned to find out—’ Her voice rises then drops with the futility of argument. For a long time, they stand by the river, looking away from each other.
Shiv feels his stomach muscles contract and pull. He did his best. What more could he have done? What can he do, now?
‘I have a son of my own. I’ll give him to you… if it eases your pain.’
The woman shakes her head. Her voice floats out from the rippling river, the drifting clouds, the sucking sand. ‘Have you asked your son’s mother?’
When Shiv turns to look, he sees her walk over the shimmering hot sand, her saree billowing around her.
He stands alone with the river before him. Slowly, he kicks off his sandals and steps into the water, feels it lap around his liquid feet and lies down over its surface, afloat; the water swirls over and around him.
He doesn’t know how long he floats but it is evening again when he wakes up on the warm sand and hears the boatman call out to him…
[Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer and independent editor based in Pune. In 2013, she received the inaugural Dastaan Award (Papercuts) for her short story “Rear View”. In 2008, she received the Oxford Bookstores debuting writers’ (second) award for her anthology, The Jungle Stories. Her short stories have appeared in various national and international anthologies.]