The City of Palaces
Johlpur was so small we had only roadside shrines for the various gods. I had heard about temples, but had never been to one, and certainly hadn’t known children could live inside. But the sahib was saying that girls were given food and clothing, and grew up to dance and give prayers to Jagannath, a reincarnation of Lord Shiva. The sahib had been commanded by the priests to bring orphan girls coming into Digha to their temple.
As he spoke, I saw the mother’s dry lips relax from their tight line. She bent to look into my face and said, ‘Surely it was Lord Shiva’s doing that we came to this well just when the good sahib was arriving. You must thank him for his kindness. Go on, touch his feet.’
I did so, and then the sahib gave some coins to the father, who at first protested, but finally accepted the money, raising it to his forehead in gratitude. All around us people stared and pointed their fingers, asking why they could not also receive money from the sahib.
It was a struggle for me to be bold enough to speak, but I was truly desperate. I said, ‘But, sahib, if I stay in a temple, my parents will never find me!’
‘If they are alive, they will surely come to the temple to pray! Many people travel to worship at Jagannath Temple. You will see.’ Then the sahib wrapped his strong hand around my wrist and led me away from the father, mother and the rest of them.
This had happened so quickly that I was frightened, but my rapid heartbeat slowed when he brought me to a food stall. Hungry people were lined up three-deep, but he shouldered his way to the front and had the vendor fill a banana leaf with rice and dal and greens. I followed his directions to take time eating. As food filled my belly, I felt sleepy with contentment. I put away my uneasiness about the man’s shifting gaze, because in truth, he had been the kindest stranger I’d ever met. I could imagine Thakurma telling me to show thanks properly.
The sahib still had more for me: sweet jalebis that he bought on the next street. Now he did not need to hold my wrist. I followed him into a quiet area near some trees where he’d left his cart. There was a seat in front for the driver and, behind that, a shaded compartment where I guessed that the sahib and I would sit. As he discussed something with the driver, I roamed a few steps backward, for I was seeking a place to relieve myself. As I passed the back of the cart, I noticed the cloth cover moving as if something were alive beneath it. I heard a strange, strangled sort of noise, and peering into the gap between the cart’s side and the cloth, I saw an eye. I moved the cloth very slightly and saw the face of a girl about my age, and near her, another girl’s face smeared with vomit. A rough rope tied the two girls together; and as I lifted the cloth farther, I saw more girls and a few boys all lying together, connected by ropes and with cloths tied over their mouths.
Time seemed to pass slowly, but in hindsight, I know that I made up my mind about what to do in just a few seconds. I walked away from the cart, pretending I’d not noticed anything, and when the sahib looked at me with his false friendly face, I begged him to allow me to relieve myself behind the tall trees bordering the road.
He agreed easily, but I felt his eyes following me until I had reached a thickly forested section. I moved into the dense grove, stepping as soundlessly as I could until I found a very large tree with a good covering of leaves. I climbed up, for by now I knew the trees were friends. This one would hide me, I was sure.
After some minutes, the sahib ran with his driver through the trees, shouting threats of what they would do if I didn’t come forth. Up in the tree, I was shaking so hard I feared rustling the leaves. The sahib was not good; he was an evil being. If I had not seen the tied-up children, I would be with them.
The sahib could spot me if he lifted his head. I tried to still my shaking, and my mind sent pleas to the birds to stop their chattering. But he did not look high; he passed under the tree and spent a long time angrily pulling apart branches. Eventually, the driver told him time was short, so he left. Through a gap in the tree’s leaves, I saw the sahib push the covering tightly around the living cargo and then mount the tonga bench. When the driver whipped the horses to go forward, I finally released my breath.
It has been many years since I saw those children in the cart. Now I wish I’d done something, perhaps run to find a constable and tell him about the sahib. But in those days, I’d been a low-caste young girl without a voice. Nobody would have believed me.
I crept through the alleys, keeping my eyes open for constables or anyone else who could apprehend me. I turned a corner and saw a family of miserable waifs huddled in a doorway. As terrifying as the sahib’s temple plan was, I could not picture living without a home among the lost souls. I wandered into another alley, vacant except for a large pack of mangy dogs surrounding a stamping, wild-eyed water buffalo that had been left tied to a hook. What a pretty beast she was, with big soft eyes that were set with fear. The dogs would kill her; this she seemed to know.
I felt her fear as if it was my own, but I knew the dogs were not as terrible a foe as the sahib. Even though dogs had sharp teeth, they couldn’t speak lies, and they had no hands to catch children or pay money to people to help him. Then I had an idea so daring that it frightened me. Instead of walking on, I could beat away the dogs and take the water buffalo for my own.
To take someone else’s water buffalo was stealing. There was no doubt about this, and stealing was a sin. However, to take the poor beast from the dogs was also protecting it. I had not done anything for the children in the cart. But if I saved this buffalo, she would be joyful, and she could carry me away and feed me her good milk.
I passed a bush, breaking off a long branch that I waved in front of me while I shouted in a deep boy’s voice, as if the water buffalo belonged to me. The dogs formed an ominous circle around me and barked all the while I unhitched the water buffalo. The biggest one snapped at my leg. I hit him roundly with the branch and made such a terrifying roar that he fell back. He kept up an angry bark until the water buffalo and I had rounded the corner, and I found a barrel to step up on to mount her.
She waited patiently and gave a slight sigh when I climbed on top. She seemed happy I’d taken her. That moment, I decided we were to be friends, and she needed a name. I decided to call her Mala, a name that meant garland, for I intended to weave a garland of flowers for her neck when we were in the countryside.
The road out of Digha was simple to follow. My spirits rose at the occasional glimpses of a blue river, which meant drinking water and fish to catch. Then rain returned, so it was a great deal harder to proceed. It was evening when we finally reached the river’s edge. Mala dropped her head and drank. Hiding from the sahib, I had lost my cup, so I used half of a broken coconut shell from a nearby grove to scoop up and drink the cold water that tasted of grit.
The moon rose as I brought Mala to graze on weeds and looked around for something for myself. Close to the water’s edge, I came upon some snails. Just as I’d done at home, I smashed the shells and pulled them out. There was no cooking fire, so I ate them as they were.
So this was how one day passed, and another. Each morning I milked Mala, squirting her milk into one coconut-shell half, drinking it, and then filling it up again with more of her milk. I got the idea that if only I had a pail, I could make a living as a milkmaid; so I kept my eye out for anyone who might have one to give me, in exchange for free milk for some time. All these ideas I spoke aloud to Mala, just as I told her about my family: how I loved them and the terrible guilt I felt for going away and leaving them to the flood. As I spoke, I sensed that Mala was treading more slowly, as if she needed a good rest or food and water.
We plodded along, passing by fields of maize and mustard greens. I saw a peddler and called out to him, asking him if he had a milk pail. But he said all his containers were sold because of the cyclone that had struck the coast. And he said I should go home, that it was not safe for a girl to be riding about on an animal that looked as if it might collapse any minute.
I kicked Mala’s sides a bit harder to see if she might move faster for me. There were sharp pains in my stomach, no doubt from hunger, and my head was throbbing. At the river again for supper, I watered Mala and gave her ferns, which I ate, too, along with the few snails I found. I remembered the garland I’d promised to make her, but I was too tired.
Mala chewed up the ferns happily, so I thought she would do well when we set off again. But in my position atop her jouncing back, my stomach was becoming unsettled, and I was struck by unusual thirst. I dismounted and scooped some river water into a shell for drinking, but that only made me feel worse.
On the damp earth, I crouched weakly while everything inside me rushed out. And then, as I struggled to stand, I felt a second rush of sickness, and I knew I’d shamed myself. With supreme effort, I raised my head and saw Mala slowly ambling alone towards the river.
Don’t leave me, I begged her silently. If she did, there would be only vultures to take my body away. I lay where I was, because my legs weren’t working any more. After a while, though, I felt Mala nuzzling my back. Using every last bit of strength, I tugged until she lowered herself to the ground; and then I clung to her until she arose. I could guess from her flaring nostrils that she smelled my sickly odour. But she was a good friend and carried me until I slept with terrible dreams.
I was in the boat with the family again, but this time the grandfather pushed me over the side into the contaminated sea. I came up gasping for air and swam all the way to a cool green pool. There I saw Thakurma’s familiar rough khadi sari trailing in the water, but when I reached out, I was wound in it so tightly I knew I would drown. Against my grandmother’s pleas for me to remain, I struggled upward until hands reached down to grab me. And then I was no longer in water, but lying on something hard that felt like the back of a cart. I had no strength to run away. All I could do was roll back and forth in agony, knowing that my brief fantasy of a free life was lost.
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