My First Byline

Six months ago, on a stifling summer morning in Calcutta, the wrong baby died. The one that was flung from a third-floor window was caught in the branches of a banyan tree where she lay for over an hour before hospital authorities found her. But her twin died in its sleep in its crib in the nursery. She was three days old. At the time of going to press the first baby was reported to be recovering. The Eastern Chronicle, where I was a staff reporter, carried the story on its front page.

The balcony outside the maternity ward on the third floor of the Calcutta General Hospital looked like a railway station, with women lying or sitting on the floor. I stepped over their bodies to enter the ward and found myself in near darkness. I blinked hard to push the bright sunlight out of my eyes until, slowly, my vision returned. It was a depressing, distasteful sight. Rows of stiff iron beds occupied by women who were either asleep or watching me, a conspicuous and unusual visitor in my jeans and blouse. The ward, like all government hospitals, smelt of unwashed bodies. I might get used to them as time went on, but I knew I’d never be as comfortable in them as I’d be walking down the corridors of Woodlands Nursing Home with its smell of disinfectant and its brightly-lit white rooms where my grandfather was treated after his heart attack. Where the nurse in her starched uniform brought him his grilled chicken with steamed veggies for dinner, which he ate while watching the news on the BBC.

I walked through the smell towards the one patient who was neither sleeping nor looking at me. She sat perfectly still on the last bed. Every strand of her knotted black hair was still, as was every pleat of her blue sari. Her eyes were fixed on some invisible spot in front of her. Her hands clutched the edge of the bed.

Sabitri Das. From Kharagar village in Hooghly district, about forty kilometers from Calcutta. Nineteen. Her hands were small and bony and as brown as the branches of a tree. She didn’t acknowledge me at all when I sat down next to her on the bed.

I had got the lead that morning through a medical resident, an old friend of mine. The hospital was at the bustling corner of C.R. Avenue and College Street. Tram lines bisected the street and buses hurled past, belching smoke. The hospital was a sprawling old place with dark, damp corridors and rows and rows of people from the working classes. Please God, let it be true, I had prayed. Since starting the job a few weeks ago, I had so far filed unimportant accident and weather reports. This could be my first byline. I had a vague, unformulated dream of saving the country with my hard-nosed, yet sensitive journalism in the years to come. It was such idealism that had spurred me on to join the old, venerated newspaper fresh out of college, much to the surprise of my friends who were busy applying to business schools or trying to get U.S. visas. I had already established myself in my own mind as a better human being with a more meaningful life. But so far, it had not been easy. My colleagues, when not downright hostile, were condescending. I got the uncomfortable feeling every morning when I walked into the big colonial, white building of The E.C. that no one really expected me to stick around for long. That they all regarded me as a spoilt young girl who was trying her hand at this new adventure until she tired of it.  The head nurse, Mrs. Ghosh, confirmed the lead. Sabitri had delivered twin girls on Sunday night. In the wee hours of Thursday morning, while the night nurse was strolling through another section of the ward, Sabitri had walked over to the nursery where the newborn babies slept, picked up one of hers, and taken it to the bathroom, where she’d opened the slightly rusty window and flung the baby out. Then she returned to bed to lie down, cool as ice.

When the nurse discovered that a baby was missing, she raised the alarm. The hospital authorities’ search ended when they found her live, scarred body nestled among the branches of a banyan about two meters below the bathroom window from where she had fallen. The baby survived, but its twin died in her sleep. According to the head nurse, the younger twin is often too weak to survive more than a few days.

 

Death was common and went unnoticed in these hospitals. My concern was with the living. I had got the lead first but I knew it wouldn’t be long before reporters from all the city’s papers and news channels showed up like birds of prey in this room where women still weak from childbirth lay. And once I was in that crowd of reporters, I’d lose my uneasy footing and be condemned to stealing quotes. Bye bye byline.

Mrs. Ghosh was round and fleshy and her chin trembled when she spoke. Her glasses kept slipping down to the middle of her nose, giving her the appearance of a four-eyed creature. I had spoken to her before coming upstairs to the maternity ward, and her glasses had distracted me, slipping down, pushed up with a finger, slipping again, pushed up.

“What really happened?” I asked.

“You know how it is,” she said, her voice thick with contempt. “These poor people don’t want daughters, and this woman had two.”

“No, I mean what happened? Describe the incident.”

She went over the details. This wasn’t a whodunit, Sabitri had confessed to the nurses and her statement had been noted by the local police.

“Are you saying that someone could so easily steal a newborn baby from the nursery and try to kill it without anyone noticing?”

Mrs. Ghosh looked straight at me. “We are very understaffed. There’s just one nurse for the whole ward at night. It’s a big ward.” Her chin trembled. She added that Sabitri’s husband had never visited her at the hospital once he’d heard that she’d had two girls. However, his sister had, and the nurses had overheard her telling Sabitri to go to hell with her babies.

“These illiterate villagers,” Mrs. Ghosh said, her mouth twitching with disapproval. She leaned towards me ever so slightly, in a gesture of alliance. She sickened me. These government employees were so vulgar, so frustrated at having to sit in dusty offices all day and having to smell all this poverty and disease. She thought she could bond with me against the rural patients but she had no idea how removed I felt from her, from her office where we sat.

Now, the ward upstairs smelt of hair oil and cheap soap. It was too quiet, as if in silent mourning. I felt uneasy. I’d expected the buzz of gossip and scandal. “Why did you do it?” I asked. I knew the answer to my question but I needed quotes.

Sabitri stared in front of her, her profile blank and motionless. I wanted to see her eyes, to see if they at least might speak.

“Did your husband force you to do this?” I asked. No response. Was she in shock or just annoyed by the violation of her privacy? I wished I’d worn a salwaar kameez like I did on days when I was prepared to go to a slum or interview people on the street.

“Look, if you don’t talk to me now, you’ll have to talk to all the men reporters who will soon be here,” I said. “You’re already in trouble with the police. Talk to me. Maybe I can help you.” I was desperate enough to lie. I had no idea how I might help, but this could be a story big enough for the local BBC or CNN bureaus. I had to be part of it, I had to be taken seriously.

But Sabitri did not respond to my warning about impending trouble. What adversity could be worse than the demons she’d already faced?

“If you tell the truth, the police will leave you alone and go after your husband.”

Then Sabitri turned to face me. Her eyes were black holes, deep and empty. They held no pain and no surprise. But when she spoke, her voice was faint. “Will my husband go to jail?” she asked, with her hands pressed upon her stomach. I sensed her fear. It was not fear for herself but for the man who hadn’t come to see her or her children since their birth that had made her turn to face me.

“Why did you do it?” I asked again, my confidence renewed by the naiveté of the simple village woman who would continue to worship her husband as if he were a God, till the very end, no matter what he did.

Sabitri stared at me, her hands pressed against her now-empty womb.

“Did your husband or members of his family ask you to do it?” I asked slowly, aware that my voice sounded curt. “I heard his sister came here on Sunday. Was she angry with you?”

“No, they are very good people.” We looked at each other. “I did it on my own. No one asked me.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s hard to raise two girls. We couldn’t afford it.”

Did her stomach hurt, I wondered, looking at her hands. It was visiting hour and a low murmur of voices rose around us.  Visitors, mostly women, were crouched by the beds where the new mothers were sitting up to talk. It was nearly eleven and I had to talk to the hospital superintendent about security measures before heading to the local police station.

“How is she?” I asked.

Sabitri looked confused.

“How’s your baby?”

“She’s all right. The doctors are watching her. They will let her go home tomorrow. But I have to stay for a week. My blood pressure is very low.”

“Do you know about the other baby?” I asked, not sure if she’d been told.

“Yes.” Her face and voice held no trace of sorrow.

When I got up to leave, Sabitri dusted the bed sheet with her hand. I asked her one last question. I’m not sure why I did. Maybe I was still groping for a peg for my story, some moving element that readers would remember long after they forgot the rest. Or maybe it was a desperate attempt to wrench some emotion out of her, out of this girl from some village who had not yielded to me.

“How did you choose?” I asked as she leaned over the bed. “How did you decide which of your two babies you would hurl out of the window?”

As soon as I uttered them, the words hung in the air between us. Sabitri looked at me with the same empty eyes, and once again said nothing. I felt as if I’d been slapped. But as I walked out of the ward onto the broad sunny balcony where people stood and sat, I wondered again how she had picked one baby out of two. Did she simply take the bigger one, the less pretty one, the one that didn’t cry? I didn’t see how I could rest until I knew how she had made her decision in the dead of night, with the milk weighing down her breasts.

If she had succeeded, both her babies would be dead. What that would have meant to Sabitri, I did not know, I could not begin to understand, I could only imagine. As I left the hospital, I wondered if she too had considered the possibility of what might have happened. Or was her imagination limited by her immediate needs, stunted by a lack of education and exposure, and therefore inferior to mine?

From the hospital, I went to Kharagar with Sumit the photographer to see the baby when she got home. We wanted to see her in her village, in the home of Sabitri’s husband and his family, who had promised the police they would take care of her.

Sumit was tall and thin with a wheatish complexion and an unkempt goatee which made him look older than his thirty-two. It also gave him a semblance of sophistication that he didn’t really have. Sumit had grown up in the bylanes of old Calcutta, attended a shabby government school, and worked in a factory for a year or two before deciding to pursue his passion. I knew this much from halting conversations on previous assignments. His English was broken, and my Bengali unsteady. But I tried my best, so as not to appear too stuck up, and we communicated sufficiently to get work done.

Kharagar was a green place. Banyan, gulmohar and coconut trees formed a protective canopy over the mud huts. Small ponds of listless mossy water were scattered amidst the overgrown grass. It wasn’t often that I got the opportunity to visit the suburbs. The E.C. had district correspondents who faxed daily reports. We city reporters were only sent out in times of disaster, or to follow campaign trails before elections. As our diesel Ambassador, driven by one of the paper’s old chauffeurs, laboured over narrow winding mud paths meant for human feet and the occasional bicycle, I smelt the grass everywhere and the cow dung drying on walls. I had vague recollections of driving through villages on road trips I’d taken with my family as a child, but unlike those times, now I was determined to notice everything. I felt I was seeing my country for the first time. I felt validated for having picked this profession. The prospect of changing the world, especially this part of it that needed so much changing, was exhilarating.

Very few people disturbed the afternoon stillness. The car came to a halt outside the entrance to an even narrower path, one that would not permit motorised transportation. As soon as they heard us drive up, a bunch of ragged boys ran over to stare at us. I asked them where I might find Sabitri’s husband Haradhan. His was a rustic name I remembered from the Bengali films I’d seen my mother and grandmother watch. It meant lost wealth.

Sumit and I followed the kids as they ran ahead of us on the brown mud path between two rows of huts. I braced myself for leers from repressed villagers no doubt unaccustomed to “loose” women in pants. The kids stopped in front of a hut where it seemed the whole village had assembled.

Sumit inhaled sharply next to me. “Either they knew we were coming, or they’re waiting to see the baby,” he said. “I just hope no one got here before us.” He took out his digital camera and was instantly surrounded by the kids who began to point at the display screen and whisper excitedly.

“Where’s Haradhan?” I asked the crowd.

“He’s working in the fields,” someone said.

“Can I talk to one of his family members?”

Someone rushed off to fetch the sister. The woman who came and stood before me was stout and, like everyone else there, very dark. The instant she appeared, I felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown down for me. She put one hand on her hip and looked at me, her eyes shining with. Her earrings glinted where the sunlight fell on them.

“Are you Haradhan’s sister?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m Rina,” she said.

“Did you visit Sabitri in the hospital?”

“Yes, several times. We were concerned about her. We had no idea she would turn into a murderer.”

From the villagers standing around us rose a collective sigh of disapproval and damnation. Rina denied having yelled at Sabitri for having girls. “Children are a gift from God. We were so pleased when we found out she had twins,” she said.

“But it’s true, isn’t it, that for such a young couple to have two daughters at once would have placed a massive financial burden on the whole family. Think about the dowries and everything.” I tried to sound as sympathetic as I could.

“A gift from God. We were happy,” she said, her hip thrust forward as she spoke, her eyes looking directly into mine.

We were told that a relative had gone to fetch the baby from the hospital. I said I wasn’t leaving until I’d met Haradhan, and someone went off to get him. In the meantime, Sumit took pictures of the hut, Haradhan’s old, silent  parents, and the neighbours who’d gathered around. The boys screamed with delight as they caught glimpses of themselves on the LED.

When Haradhan arrived, Sumit changed his focus effortlessly, and the kids turned with him as if tied by a single rope. The lost wealth was a short scrawny young man, no more than twenty. He entered the clearing without looking at anyone and headed inside the hut.

“Haradhan,” I called. He ignored me.

Rina went over to him before he could disappear and whispered in his ear, at which he came outside and stood there, glowering at me in his vest and loose, dirty shorts.

“Why didn’t you visit your wife and children in the hospital?” I asked.

“I had no time. I work hard,” he said.

“Will you take care of them now?”

“We will take care of the baby. That murderer will not enter my house.” He pushed Sumit out of his way and rushed inside, saying he wanted a bath. His anger threatened to spill over into us.

I was single, my experience of men was limited to the boys from my school and college who either wore their aviator sunglasses as they whizzed around the city in their fathers’ cars, or sniffed glue and talked about French New Wave cinema while they listened to the Grateful Dead. Then of course, there were men like my father and his friends, all of them busy professionals with flight schedules and lunch appointments to maneuver. Now here was a man of a totally different breed and for the life of me I didn’t know what to make of him, whether to hate him or fear him. Sumit got his photo-op when the baby finally arrived. Although Haradhan didn’t reappear, Rina cradled it in her arms and cooed and rocked it like a doting aunt. It looked like a little monkey with its face all scrunched up and its eyes shut tight. On its forehead was a tiny black dot, a kaajal tika for luck. The baby’s limbs were swathed in bandages.

We left the baby and its aunt surrounded by curious neighbours, the centre of attention. More reporters would be on their way, some with TV cameras. It was an exciting day for Kharagar.

The kids escorted us to Sabitri’s home on the other side of the village. From among the group of assembled neighbours, a lone figure, a man in shirt and trousers, followed us without speaking. As we walked along the mud path, Sumit took a number of pictures of the village. He said it looked pretty in the slanting afternoon light.

Sabitri’s parents’ hut was smaller and bleaker. It was nestled between two tall coconut trees. The kids got there before us and announced our arrival loudly. In the shadows of the little mud porch, a man reclined. He wore only a checkered lungi wrapped around his waist and tied into a knot on one side. He had curly grey hair and a grey moustache, and he stared into the space in front of him much like his daughter in the hospital.

From inside the house, his wife emerged, a slight woman with glasses. She hastened to fetch a cane stool for me, and asked us to sit. “There are no more chairs. Bring a mat from your house,” she said to one of the boys.

“Please don’t worry. I’ll sit right here,” said Sumit, and crouched on the step of the porch.

Then she offered us water to drink. Sumit and I looked at each other. There was an unwritten code among reporters and photographers never to drink water on work unless it was boiled. But refusing, we both knew, could seal hearts and lips forever.

“Can we have some tea?” asked Sumit. He had six years more experience covering incidents than me.

“Of course,” said Sabitri’s mother, her face lighting up with pleasure at his request.

So we sat in the yard that belonged to no one, sipping weak tea from steel glasses. I’d always thought the water people offered in villages was safer than what we got in the cities because it spurted up fresh and sweet from underground tube-wells. And it certainly tasted better than the tea. But a code was a code.

Sabitri’s mother said she was sorry that one of the babies had died, sorry their daughter had tried to do such a thing, but that was not their main concern. “What will happen now?” she asked me. “Sabitri’s father is a daily wage labourer. He earns thirty or forty rupees a day. We sold off all our property except this hut to marry off our two daughters. Now we have nothing. How will we take care of Sabitri and her baby?”

“Haradhan says they will take the child,” I said.

From behind me, I heard a curt laugh from the man who’d followed us. Sabitri’s mother gave a half smile. Her husband refused to speak or look at us. The couple looked like those mute oppressed villagers I’d seen in Mrinal Sen’s films, the ones I refused to watch because they were so depressing.

“Why did you make her marry such a man?” I asked.

There was silence.

“Santosh babu will tell you,” the woman finally said. I looked at the man in the shirt. He looked about forty. She had used the term of respect for him, as if he were someone important.

“They didn’t have a choice,” he said. “Sabitri was six months pregnant at the time of the wedding. She used to meet that fellow in the dead of night when everyone was asleep. The fools.”

It was the missing piece of a puzzle. The look of hopelessness and loss on Sabitri’s parents’ faces wasn’t caused by the baby’s death or even the crime that Haradhan’s family accused her of committing. It came from the shame that had stained the hut for months. The shame that had driven the crowd of people to the husband’s part of the village, the shame that had fallen on the woman’s head like a shroud but spared the man. The shame that Sabitri had now doubled, trebled, by trying to get rid of her baby. She had roused people in her community, both men and women, to ask, what kind of mother would do such a thing? The kind of mother, whispered the coconut trees, who brought shame to her parents’ house by engaging in a secret sexual relationship before marriage and getting herself pregnant. It seemed the entire village had rallied behind Haradhan and his kin because Sabitri had transgressed more than once, proving beyond any doubt her guilt.

Sabitri’s old father sat still as a rock as I heard the story. Once again, a real human being in front of me who refused to speak, who refused to let me into his private thoughts. Was he thinking about his shame, and the family honour, or was he weighed down only by the prospect that loomed large – that of his daughter soon to come home and live with them, perhaps for the rest of their lives, a burden that could not be got rid of by some quick, violent midnight gesture

“Are you going to see the baby?” I asked, instantly aware that it was a stupid question.

“No, we’re not allowed to go there, and they don’t come here,” Sabitri’s mother said. She didn’t sound angry, only resigned.

It seemed strange to me that the boundaries were so clearly defined between Sabitri’s home and Haradhan’s, even though they had both committed the same acts. If some shared passion had driven them to one another on sultry, secret nights, then now suddenly they had been prized apart by some unwritten social codes that were so complex I could not even dare to comprehend them.

“Only Shankar babu has helped us,” Sabitri’s mother continued. “He took her to the district hospital where she lay for a few days. But her labour was so delayed they couldn’t keep her anymore. The doctor said he needed the bed. So Shankar babu took her to Calcutta.”

Shankar looked quietly at the floor.

“Are you a relative?” I asked him.

“No, I live in the village and work in the district post office.” He had studied up to tenth grade, and had made it suitably big. He was one of the handful of men that weak villagers like this family depended on. He formed a link between Kharagar and the world outside.

“Do you know the police have charged Sabitri with attempted manslaughter?” I asked him.

“Yes, I went to the police station yesterday. I have arranged for bail so she can come home when the hospital releases her, until the trial.”

“I still can’t understand why she would do such a violent thing. She looks so frail,” I said, looking at them all in turn, searching for signs of shame or guilt or maybe even disgust.

“She has a history,” said Shankar.

“You mean she’s hurt someone before?”

“Someone. Herself. She tried to kill herself just before the wedding. Then she became really ill and we could hardly hold her down upon the bed. The doctor said it was hysteria.”

I wrote it down, translating the Bengali words to English – history, hysteria.

When we finally left the village it was evening. The air was stuffy and warm, and in spite of the knowledge that my first byline would probably make the front page, I felt a sense of dissatisfaction as we drove towards the city. The sun was casting its peach net across the sky. I wondered if Sabitri had picked the stronger baby because she would have a bigger appetite and would be harder to satisfy.

Today, six months later, I am in Kharagar again. It’s December, the sun is softer, and the streets seem busier. People ride by on bicycles. A woman carries a pot of water against her hip. A group of little boys in faded school uniforms walk with miniature tin suitcases in their hands, in the direction of the municipality school.

Sumit readily agreed to accompany me. He’s a mild-tempered, unassuming man, for whom no story is too small or too big. He is the sort of photographer who will always work for The E.C., until he retires at sixty. I can’t imagine myself in the dark, gloomy rooms of the paper a few years from now. I can’t even imagine myself in Calcutta, or in this underdeveloped state, for long. My present job is meant to be a stepping stone to higher, more glorified ground, where the recognition for what you do is more immediate and more apparent. Knowing that I am destined for bigger and better things makes all the poverty and depression I see around me bearable. Knowing that Sumit will never get out of here alive makes me sorry for him.

On the way from Calcutta, he stopped to buy cheap unfiltered cigarettes. I took one and smoked in silence while he and the driver shared office gossip. No one asked me why I wanted to make this trip again. No one knows about the flying babies that appear night after night in my dreams. Sometimes there are many babies, dozens of them, flailing their limbs and howling. At first they scared me and I always woke up with a start and found it impossible to go back to sleep, thinking perhaps I’d lost my mind. But six months of illegal constructions, anti-malaria drives and midnight fires have made me less squeamish. When I dream of babies now, I simply lie awake in bed and count them, like sheep, until I fall asleep again. I have resigned myself to the fact that until I know how Sabitri chose one baby over the other, until I understand how she felt as it was leaving her hands, I will never have a normal night again.

This time Sumit and I are not strangers. The boys see us from a distance and yell and wave. But this time they don’t escort us.

We go to Haradhan’s first. No one crowds around the hut. His old parents sit on the porch and squint up at us through their thick foggy glasses. Haradhan isn’t home, but Rina comes out and stands in front of me. When she speaks, she looks away at a clump of trees.

“The baby is not here. It lives with its mother.”

“But you said you would look after her.”

“Sabitri’s parents had promised to build a new room in our hut at the time of the wedding. They didn’t keep their word. If the room is built, both mother and daughter can live here. But right now there is no space.”

I stare at her, not knowing what to say. I can’t think of any questions. It seems I already have my story; I could just turn around and leave.

“This is Haradhan’s decision. Unless he comes back, we can’t say anything,” Rina adds.

I ask when Haradhan will be back.

She shrugs. “Not until evening.”

It’s ten in the morning. I look at Sumit helplessly.

“All right, thank you,” he says to Rina. “Let’s go and see the baby,” he tells me.

I am glad he’s here. Sumit isn’t a district boy but like the man who drove our car, he is more comfortable in these surroundings than I, even though today I have taken care to wear a brown khadi kurta that reaches my knees over my loose salwaar.

We walk to Sabitri’s parents’ house in silence. Sumit takes no pictures. News of our arrival has evidently travelled faster than us, for Sabitri stands in an orange sari in the yard where cakes of dung are laid out to dry for the evening stove. She comes forward smiling and greets me like an old friend.

“Didi, come.”

I am astonished at the warmth of her reception. Is this the same woman I met at the hospital? Her mother and aunt beam at us and offer coconut water. I look at Sumit, who nods. Green coconuts hang from the branches far above us, looking fresh and safe.

“Where’s your baby?” I ask.

We are led to the single room inside the hut. It has a bed and a wooden cupboard, real furniture like in real homes. On the bed lies the baby. Six months old now, she still wears the little black kaajal dot on her forehead for luck. Her eyes too are ringed with kaajal, as is customary in villages. She no longer looks like a little monkey.

Sumit and I admire the baby for a while until Sabitri speaks up, sounding like an indignant child. “They sent her back after two weeks and since then no one from their family has come to see us,” she says. “They say it’s the home of a murderer.”

It is still so tiny and it wails as if its heart is being torn out. How did Haradhan part with it? How does he live with the knowledge that one of his daughters is dead? Does he miss them both, or this one more than the other? Was it his pride or his instinct for survival or his blind, elemental rage at the universe that made him reject his baby girl?

I look up. The mother and aunt linger tentatively in the doorway.

“My father earns so little. Do you know how much it costs to buy medicine, vaccines, powdered milk?” Sabitri’s question implies an accusation that I don’t know or don’t care. I detect a change in her tone since our last meeting. She no longer reveres Haradhan or fears me. Back in her parents’ home, daughter in arm, she seems stronger. I am hurt by her accusation that I don’t understand her situation but I don’t know how to prove her wrong.

Sumit asks her to carry the baby outside for pictures. I stand in the yard, drinking cool flaky coconut water, and watch him work. I have always regarded him and the other photographers with the same detachment that I reserve for the people in my stories. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, invite them to my parties. We watch different films, eat different food, move in different circles. In the car on the way here, Sumit flicked cigarette ash outside the window and told me he was trying to get his four-year-old son into school. He was looking at Bengali-language schools, I said English ones would be more useful, at which he turned away from me and talked to the driver instead.

Now he places the baby gingerly on an unsteady chair and makes funny faces at her to make her smile as he focuses his camera. He speaks familiarly with the women, who are comfortable with him because if he didn’t have the Nikon in his hand, he might have been their brother or son. Even if I tell them about my baby dream, I will not belong with them. The scene I am watching is joyful and relaxed. A family is laughing together, looking like it can get past obstacles and crises. The simplicity of the scene makes me want to cry, because I know that nothing is this simple. Not their lives, not my work, not the decisions we make or the consequences we suffer, not the knowledge we gain. I feel sorry for Sumit whose career prospects will never improve, I feel sorry for Sabitri who must live with the memory of her dead child for the rest of her life, I feel sorry for Haradhan who will never know a serene moment, I feel sorry for all the villagers here who will never eat the foods I eat or watch the sitcoms I watch or wear the clothes I wear. But most of all, I feel sorry for myself because here, in my own country, in my own state, I am outside and no one will let me in.

Shankar has heard we are here. He comes over with the information that Sabitri must go to the lower court for a hearing next week. I tell him to keep me posted.

“So Haradhan has just refused to take her back?” I ask.

“Well, they say they’ll take both of them when the room is built. At the time of the wedding, Sabitri’s father paid fifty thousand rupees for the dowry. He has nothing left,” says Shankar.

I look at the little house and yard, and try to imagine where the dowry came from in the first place.

“And we gave you two thousand,” says Sabitri’s mother, looking at Shankar. I look at him too.

“I had to pay the bail and also there are court fees,” Shankar explains to me, his eyes narrowed. “Don’t worry, the villagers will rally around. We can collect funds to build a room.”

I keep looking at Shankar, who looks back at me unflinching. He has made it big by the village’s standards, he can read and write and even understand snatches of English. He has a proper job and a regular income. He is cleverer than these people, which is why he is their self-appointed guardian, and naturally he is better at dealing with the police and the lawyers, better at handling money. He smiles at me as if to say we are on the same side, and for a moment I feel sick.

“Are we done? Let’s go,” I say to Sumit. In how many more ways can this idyll be corrupted? How much more meanness must descend upon these people? I want to get out of here and return to the comforting whirl of the newsroom.

Sumit swings the camera over his shoulder. We say our goodbyes and start to walk to the car. Suddenly Sumit turns and returns to the hut. I wait where I am, thinking he’s forgotten something. He takes out a wad of notes from his wallet and presses it into Sabitri’s hand.

“Buy her milk,” he says.

Sumit is not a rich man. He takes a crowded state bus to work every day, often hanging from the doorway as many people do in rush hour. I have seen him from my green Hyundai Santro as I turn into the office parking lot. If I try to give them money now, it will look like an afterthought, a cheap imitation of his gesture. I know they wouldn’t care, they’d be glad to take it anyway, but I can’t make myself do it. So I just walk to the car without acknowledging his gesture, although my ears sting with shame.

When the car is about to pull away, I hear Sabitri call, “Didi.” She has the baby in her arms.

“Please come again,” she says. “If you want you can also call me. Someone in our village has a telephone and if you ask for me they will fetch me. You might have to wait a few minutes.”

I scribble the number down without looking at what I’m writing and promise to call. I need to get away from here. I don’t understand why I should call her, what good it might do, what good any continuing association with this woman will do any of us. I am wracked by guilt and helplessness and an intense physical desire to take off these clothes and cleanse myself in a cold shower.

“Will you come to the court next week?” she asks.

“I’m not sure,” I say, almost certain that there will be no more space for this story. “But I’ll be in touch.”

“Can’t you help me in any way?”

I hesitate. “I can write. That’s all I can do.” It won’t be enough, it never is, it won’t change the world, it won’t change Kharagar, it won’t change anything. But it’s all I have.

And I have a question. Why this baby? Why not the other one?

Sabitri is looking anxiously at me. She thinks I am her friend. Till the end, she remains naïve.

“What’s her name?” I ask.

“Mandira,” she says.

The car turns around and we drive down the bumpy path. I look back through the rear window. In the distance, Sabitri is a frail figure like an orange flame among the trees, holding in her arms a little baby that will one day grow up and hear from a well-meaning neighbour how she was once in every newspaper in the country. Maybe she will manage to find a clipping from The E.C. Will she ever look at her mother’s face again without cringing? Will she feel deep inside the pain from the fall, from when she hurtled through the dark, humid air? Will she wonder what demonic God it was that saved her for a life of poverty and oppression? Will she seek me out to ask if her mother flipped a coin in the dark to make up her mind?

And if she does, what will I tell her then? That I once needed to know just as she does, but that I gave up the search when I realized I had no right to ask questions about what I could never hope to understand, that some stories are better left alone because they are not mine to tell.

 

 

Previously published in vandaljournal/Insecurities