It is good to let go of your own storyline sometimes. Enjoy! Kathleen
This story is written by guest blogger, Shantanu Ghosh
“The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were the fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.
‘And we could have all this,’ she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.'”
– from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
I will take the last train out of Taraganj.
It is mostly dark, swirls of grey being covered by pitch. Mosquitoes are my only company on the single platform. I sit down, their buzzing in my ears a welcome irritation that drowns the sound of my thoughts. And they give me something to do. I sit and swat them with nothing else to occupy my time for the next two hours.
Taraganj is a strange name for a town. It is a village, really, and has outgrown its usefulness. A long time back, it used to be a flourishing trading post on the newly constructed railway route. But there were factories coming up. The center of gravity moved to the factory township forty miles away. Within two years, almost nothing remained of the flourishing marketplace outside the rail station except for the makeshift stall selling sweet overboiled chai and pakoras, and the old cobbler. Even the toddy seller had moved.
The ticket counter is still closed. It will open, I had been told, ten minutes before the train is due to arrive. I don’t want to go near the tea shop because of the strong smell of marijuana. Someone is living life in a different domain. And I do not want want company — good or bad — in any case. So there is nothing to do except wait in the fade to black.
My mind soon tires of the dull hum of the mosquitos, and the more insistent hum of my thoughts replaces their noise, even as they continue to feast on my skin. There is no rhyme or reason to my mind’s tricks. As if affected by the remote geography, their sounds come in with static, and turn in on each other — the radio dial jumping stations, sometimes blasting at me suddenly before jumping on where two frequencies collide. The restlessness is constant, but sadness also blares through. In the long stretch of time, I am relieved by a few sweet sounds, those memories hinting at a smile on my lips. But my mind mostly echoes its surroundings — dark and tuneless. And I am broody.
Taraganj was a town I had spent many of my childhood summers. My grandfather used to have a cottage here. The cottage is still there, just that it no longer belongs to our family.
I had grown up in a larger town not far from here. Then came my higher studies, and I moved even further. And then I landed a job in America. So I had come a long way from this small, insignificant spot on the map to the vibrant city life of New York. But I always yearned for the unadulterated air of the geographical dot that held all of those treasured, sweet memories. Memories of walking beneath a canopy of neem, banyan, mahua, gulmohar and deodar trees. The mahua trees especially — their sweet smell maddening and intoxicating. Indeed they used to make cheap liquor from it.
There was a small river about a mile from the railway station. I used to row my grandfather’s boat on that river. I had a friend, a local boy who was older than me by several years. I don’t remember his name, but I hear he has gone into the city and is an insurance agent now.
I remember the first time in school I kissed a girl. She was my best friend. She was also a girl who came from a rich family. As we sat beneath a neem tree on a hot summer afternoon, I had dozed off. I had woken up startled when she had thrust her face in front of mine, and still stirring from my sleep, it seemed almost dreamlike. It was not even a like a real kiss — those that I would come to know later, away from this place. More like an exploration. Testing the waters. She climbed up on my lap, and we played with our tongues. It was fun and sent shivers down my spine, my skin covered with goosebumps, until she pulled me on top of her. I panicked — and not a second later, ran away. We were in seventh grade. The next day at school, we did not speak at all, and I avoided her completely after that. I never saw her again after that year.
My mind wanders on to thoughts of other friends. I think of the football games we used to play in the rains, the many movies we enjoyed in college, the occasional western music concerts that we got tickets for. I think about past girlfriends. But none of these thoughts stay with me for long, except one persistent memory that keeps returning, slamming into my mind with almost violent force: the first time I saw two sadhus fighting and wrestling each other.
As the memory tumbles back in again, I recognize with a dry smile the derivative symbolism it reflects back to my present situation and what brought me to this station in the first place. I had been going through a rough patch at work, and my colleagues were not helpful. My boss and I did not see eye-to-eye, and I was struggling to keep my sanity and my job. I had been wrestling with all of this for awhile and had finally taken a week off and had come to Taraganj. I could have gone anywhere. But I returned here. To find something. What, I didn’t know.
And then I notice her. She enters my awareness slowly, appearing vague and shadowy, at first easily mistaken as just another hazy memory floating in. My mind’s fog clears, and I recognize the shape and form of real. She is on the platform with me. A beggar woman. She is sitting hunched over a small squalid cloth bundle. She is a single reflection of all that has collapsed and turned to dust around her in this town. My vision sharpens, and even through the darkness I can see the sharp outline of her sunken cheeks, her matted, filthy hair. Her eyes cast down, her entire body sends off signals that warn me to look away, that she will not welcome my gaze. Still, my eyes keep tumbling back to her frame.
And then she notices me as well, with a suddenness it seems but somehow as if she had been expecting me. And though she moves quickly to stand and walk, it seems to take a long time for her to close the short distance between us. And then she is right in front of me, asking if I have any bidis. I tell her, “No, I don’t smoke.” She goes quiet for awhile but doesn’t turn to walk away.
“What are you doing in Taraganj?” she asks squinting at me.
“I had some work.”
“Nobody has work in Taraganj. You are lying.”
I am startled.
“I work in the city and came here to look at the lovely forest.”
“You are still lying” she bites out with a ferocity. And I am almost thrown back by the force of her words.
The silence that follows this time is only interrupted by the pounding of blood in my ears.
“You came here looking for something.” It was softer but insistent.
I look up, astonished. How would she know that? My ears pound more and I force myself to breath, to think clearly. Maybe she is just trying to make me uncomfortable and force me to cough up some money. I think it best to keep quiet. She will leave.
“You came here looking for something you did not find in the city?” she continues to press. “Where do you live? Why did you come here?”
In this next silence, I find myself distinctly annoyed, ready to tell her to please go. But she begins again soon after. No more questions. A story. As if I had asked her to tell one. And her voice holds the sincerity of talking with a dear friend.
She came from an affluent family. She had been married young, right after high school. On her wedding night, she was raped by her father-in-law. He said her new husband was impotent and therefore could not have children. She had walked out the next day. At first she thought of killing herself. Hanging herself. Throwing herself in front of the train. Jumping off a bridge. She tells these choices slowly, dragging each one out as a wondering, and I can see how she had considered each one.
She continues on.
She did not make any of the choices, of course. Because something inside of her had stayed the decision. Two months later she found out she was pregnant. She had the baby and abandoned her in front of a church. That was nine years ago. She survived all these years after by prostituting herself. Four months ago she was found unconscious and had woken up in a hospital. The doctor had told her she had cancer. It had spread everywhere already. She would not have long.
She stops. Nothing more to say. My thoughts spin around her story now, all of the images coming to me as if they are my own memories floating back. But she forces me back to the present.
“I am dying,” she says. “Won’t you ask me what is my last wish?”
“What is your last wish?” I asked half-heartedly, annoyed at her nagging, wanting to be left alone again with my own thoughts. She had no right to intrude on them. The disdain in my voice is noticeable even to me.
“I want someone to hold me and kiss me like he wanted me. I want to feel like a woman.”
It knocks me out of my senses.
“Will you grant me my last wish?”
I am taken aback by her request. More by her audacity. The thought of being with a prostitute is revolting, and I feel like I’m about to vomit. But I can’t move. I don’t want to look away from her. Something keeps drawing me back; I am curious, and she is mesmerizing, something in the back of my brain that I just can’t call up.
Before I can say anything, she comes near me and pulls me close in one swift motion. I hear her heavy breathing. I am surprised by her force and almost let out a scream. The stench from her breath is nauseating, and I try to pull away, disgusted and horrified.
“One time, just once, please,” she says. “Kiss me on my lips.”
And I’m forced to look up into her eyes by a power that I can’t control. Her’s are fiery and red. I take in her arched body, inflamed with one last bout of passion. Still being moved without reason or intention, I am leaning towards her. My lips touch her parched and cracked one, unwilling to commit. I close my eyes. It seems like an eternity. I bite my lower lip, locking them together, but she is forceful and insistent and pries them apart with her whole mouth. She bites me hard and draws blood. The saltiness floods my mouth.
And then she draws away as quickly as she had pulled me in before.
Before I can recover, she slumps forward and goes limp. Her eyes are now glassy, the fire extinguished. I catch her in my arms as she falls.
Her voice returns to wondering. “Why did you run away that day? What took you so long to come looking for me?”
I feel her last breath leave her body. I see the light turn on at the ticket counter. The buzz of the mosquitoes returns to my ears, so loud in my ears.