Author: Brian Lawrence PM
Set in Allahaba, India, this is the story of a little girl named Munni and her mother, who are beggars. It's magical realism and was originally written for a workshop I took on Magical Realism.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Supernatural/Spiritual - Words: 4,477 - Published: 07-21-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3043862
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
by Brian Lawrence (2009)
Outside Allahabad, in a village seldom visited by anyone, inside one of a cluster of six houses patch-worked together by old blankets, discarded blue and yellow tarps, scraps of particle board, sapling tree trunks, and even old tires, a small girl crouched on her dirt floor and scraped a piece of flint against a rough stone, the matches having run out two days ago. Tiny sparks ignited and bounced impotently off the wet tinder arranged neatly before her. Munni sighed, shook her tired arms, and resumed her task. Her mother squatted on the other side of the fire pit, barely visible in the gray light leaking through their one window. She wore, as she had for the past several days, her blue and white striped sari over a lighter blue and white print lehenga. Munni loved that sari the best for she imagined it had once been the skin of a magical blue tiger. She kneeled, careful to lift the bottom of her midnight blue dress out from under her knees. One of only two she owned, it was her favorite because of the smooth, slippery fabric and the shiny white thread used to weave the flowers across the front. Within the flowers sequins sparkled green, pink and yellow making the flowers appear like pieces of oyster shell. Munni again shook her hands, trying to loosen her cramping fingers.
She looked up. "Yes, Ma?"
"I think the leaves and sticks are too wet to light. Let me go to old man Ramu's and see if he has some matches. He often picks up things like that."
Munni laid the flint and stone to the side and watched her mother rise, listening for the customary swish of her skirt, but not hearing it. Lately, her mother moved as silently as the spirits the older women in the village whispered of. Her mother walked with her back erect, her steps measured. Missing also was the dust that usually puffed around her feet when she walked. Munni wondered why her mother walked so carefully. It wasn't like she'd awaken Munni's father, for recently he'd been staying in town, preferring to sleep in his rickshaw in the open air rather than in the stuffy back room of their home.
Her mother passed through the wall into old man Ramu's house. Munni thought it a strange, but fascinating way to enter the old man's place. She wondered if she could pass through a wall like that. Probably not. Being only ten, she wasn't old and wise enough. The elders in the village talked about how some people gained special abilities as they grew older and wiser. Still, just walking into another person's house unannounced was not customary. But then she figured her mother, who had seemed so tired after even small walks, was saving her energy, rather than struggling up the steps to ground level, walking all the way around the house next door, and down another flight of stairs. Or maybe old man Ramu kept the matches in his back room and her mother wanted to retrieve them without having to enter into conversation, for old man Ramu loved to tell tales and could drone on for hours.
Munni sat back and drew her knees up under her chin, wrapping her arms around them and waited. Her gaze rested on the curtain to the back room. The flies had thickened recently and now flitted in and out of the small opening above the floor. Large, blue and black, loud, bold, annoying. Munni swatted at one that landed on her dark, dirty arm. It buzzed angrily off into the murky corner of the kitchen, its sound fading, drowned by the drumming on the canvas and stick roof as the four-day rain intensified. How smart her mother was, realized Munni. That was why she had gone through the wall instead of by the door. It was raining and her mother didn't want to get wet, especially if old man Ramu didn't have matches and they'd have a fireless night.
A few minutes later her mother returned how she had come and handed Munni three matches and a newspaper. Munni crumpled the paper and tucked it under her pile of sticks, careful not to upset them. She struck the match on her stone. It flared, sending undulating shadows dancing across the dried mud walls. Munni inhaled the smell of burning sulfur, much more pleasant than the rank odor that had been building inside the home for the past few days, a dead rat under the bed in the other room her mother had said. That had happened occasionally. For some reason it was a favorite place to go and die after eating the poison her mother set out. And the mattress of straw was so flimsy and bulky it was difficult to extract the dead rodents.
She touched the match to the newspaper. Flames leaped, burning blue and green at the center. The sticks crackled and popped and sent tendrils of white smoke out the open window. Munni smiled at her mother, who smiled back, her eyes dark pools of flat black, reflecting nothing.
Once the larger logs burned steadily, Munni placed a tripod over the fire and hung their one tarnished and dented pot from it. She filled the pot with water using a plastic pitcher she'd found along the road. When the water bubbled she added the rice.
"That's enough, Munni," her mother said. "I'm not hungry. You only need enough for you."
"Are you sure, Ma? You didn't eat breakfast."
Her mother nodded. "You'll need it for tomorrow's dinner."
Munni almost protested, knowing she'd be out begging tomorrow, even if the rain continued, and would be able to buy enough for tomorrow night, but her mother turned away and moved to the corner. When the rice was finished, Munni dished the tiny portion onto her banana leaf plate. She put her face into the rising steam breathing in the grainy, wet smell. When the rice had cooled sufficiently, she ate it with her hands. During her meager dinner her mother remained silent and motionless in the corner.
After dinner the fire had burned low, leaving a murky darkness. Nothing to do but go to sleep. Besides, she needed to get up at first light to walk the several miles into town. Munni tossed the banana leaf plate onto the table in the corner, grabbed a worn blanket off the wall and laid down near the fire. As soon as she closed her eyes, she felt her mother's fingers combing through her shoulder-length hair. Her mother sang quietly in Hindi, a song about a princess and a white tiger, Munni's favorite. It took only minutes for Munni to drift off to sleep, despite the gurgling in her still empty stomach. But just before she slipped away, she heard her mother say, "Things will get better my little Munni."
The sun made its first appearance all week. It beat down mercilessly on Munni. Her dress clung to her, wet already from the thick humidity and tedious early-morning walk. Taxi horns blared, motorcycles roared and beeped, truck horns wonked, bicycle bells rang, brakes whined, tires screeched, jack hammers clattered and people shouted as Munni roamed her territory. Prime territory, so she'd been told. The envy of many others from her village and especially of the street beggars, those who slept, ate, crapped on the streets, having nothing but a small piece of sidewalk to return to. Her handler thought she was extremely cute and would attract a lot of sympathy, so he positioned her near the coffee shop with an English name. Her territory stretched from there to the bank, both sides of the street.
As Munni passed the coffee shop, she savored the roasted coffee smell then sighted her favorite older lady. She didn't know the lady's name, but she was always good for at least a five-rupee coin. Munni came alongside her. The lady wore a purple and red sari over a dark red choli and deep purple lehenga. Her midriff glistened. The diamond stud in her nose sparkled in the morning sun.
"Ah, there you are my little one," she said. Her wrists jangled from all the bracelets as she dropped a coin in Munni's metal cup, the first coin of the day.
Munni bowed and moved away from her, leaving the smell of coffee for the odor of rotting fruit. A cow ate garbage that spilled from the dumpster between two shops. Under a blue tarp, the fruit vendor sat, looking bored. Bananas, limes, and mangos were piled on wooden carts. Munni smiled at him, but he stared past her, not acknowledging her. Two rich men in pressed shirts and ties walked toward her. Neither one even glanced at her as she held her cup up to them. She followed them, but they increased their pace and crossed the street. Munni had to wait for two scooters, three rickshaws and a taxi. By then, the men were gone. She darted across the street, narrowly avoiding a young man on a bicycle, who yelled something profane at her. A boy about her age waited for a longer break in the traffic. Two giant buckets filled with water rested on the ground to either side of him. She waved to him, but he ignored her. She passed the public phone booth, which doubled as a travel agency. Four men lounged around a dilapidated desk, and one man sat in a wooden chair in front of a table, talking on the phone. Bent and twisted wires sprang from a car battery into the shed protecting the public phone from the daily power outages. She approached the men, cup held out, but they waved her away, never making eye contact.
Two tall, beautiful young women walked past her, one in a white print dress decorated with powder blue, dark blue and purple leaves, a bright blue dupatta draped over her shoulders. The other woman wore a bright orange sari with light purple patterns over a darker orange choli. Both women had red bindis between their eyes. The one in orange had red smeared at her hairline, indicating she was married. Munni trotted to catch up and held her cup out to them, but they continued to talk to each other, ignoring her. She followed for some distance, but as soon as she reached the bank, she stopped, not daring to cross out of her territory.
She sighed. Some days were like this. Others, by now, she'd have twenty, maybe even thirty rupees. She looked around. A steady stream of ornately decorated rickshaws passed by, all of them with one or two passengers, the drivers pedaling hard, not bothering to use the seat, putting all their weight into their task. Munni loved the bright colors and patterns on the backs of the rickshaws. Reds and yellows and blues and greens in intricate repeating designs, reminding her of peacocks with their tails spread. A larger rickshaw caught her attention. She felt jealous of the occupants. Plain, with a yellow canvas top, ten children occupied its two benches. The boys wore bright white shirts, red ties, and black pants. The girls wore sleeveless red dresses over white shirts, long white socks and polished black shoes. All the children held satchels. The driver strained to keep the school bus moving. Munni longed to wear a uniform and attend school, to learn about the world, but with her mother no longer working and her father drinking away what he made, she had to beg.
She shifted her gaze back toward the coffee shop, usually a good source of income. A group of six women and two men walked out of the cafe, all of them with white skin. Munni's eyes widened. She knew there were a couple white people in town, missionaries she'd been told, but had never seen so many together. And what really surprised her was that several of the young women wore traditional Indian kurtas and one of the women even wore a pink salwar kameez with a darker pink dupatta over her shoulders. Munni dodged bicycles and rickshaws and crossed the street, hurrying to catch up with the group. They had just started away from the coffee shop when she reached them. Fortunately, they headed toward the bank. When she held out her cup, they stopped and talked to each other in a language she did not understand. Munni spoke her village dialect and Hindi, but had never learned English, which is what she assumed they were speaking. One of the women about her mother's age, the one in the salwar kameez, dropped several coins into her cup. One was a ten-rupee coin. Munni smiled at her and bowed. The others smiled back, but offered nothing. The group continued walking. Munni followed. As they walked, they kept glancing back at her and talking amongst themselves. Even though they offered her nothing, Munni gained satisfaction just because they noticed her. Finally, one of the younger women stopped. She was about sixteen, Munni guessed, with long ash-blond hair, full lips like her own, bright eyes, and wearing a vivid blue kurta and black pants. She reached inside her bag and pulled out a package with lettering and pictures of animals on it, which she tore open and handed to Munni, who accepted it, but stared at it, not sure what to do.
The young woman took out another packet and tore it open. She reached inside and pulled out a dark red jelly, which she popped into her mouth and muttered "mmmm," then chewed. Munni reached in her packet and pulled out a blue jelly. Upon close examination she realized it was shaped like some kind of animal. She put it in her mouth and chewed slowly. It was unbelievably sweet and so good. Munni gobbled down the rest of the little fruit snacks. While she was eating, the young woman took her picture. Munni then held out her cup, as she had been instructed to do anytime anyone ever took her picture. The young woman said something, looking apologetic, then walked away to join her group. Munni frowned, but followed, interested in where they were going. Maybe there were more of them and the others would have money or treats.
The group passed the bank, then the dressmaker, and then the bakery. Finally, they turned down an alley. Munni still followed. They walked past a building construction site. On seven levels men shouted and hammers thonked. Two small children, a girl about five in orange shorts and a yellow shirt and a pantless boy, maybe three, rushed out from the first floor onto a pile of bricks and waved to the group of white people. A couple of the young women stopped, waved, and took their pictures. Their mother stood under the first floor ceiling and watched them. The family lived at the construction site while the man of the family worked on the building. The mother scowled at Munni, then commanded her children to come to her. They obeyed. Munni turned away and followed the group of white people until they turned into an apartment building. Munni watched the group walk up the external staircase until they disappeared, then turned to leave, wanting to hurry because she realized she'd strayed out of her territory.
A shadow fell over her. She looked up. Two barefoot teenage boys, both wearing sleeveless, dirty, blue undershirts and stained gray slacks, barricaded her progress. One was about a head taller than the other. They smiled, but the smiles were cold. The shorter boy pushed her back and the other advanced on her.
"What are you doing here, little girl? This is not your territory."
"I'm sorry," pleaded Munni. "I wasn't begging. I just wanted to see-"
The taller boy knocked her down. Her cup flew from her hand. The coins scattered. She scrambled to pick them up, but one of the boys stepped on her hand. She yelped, then felt herself being picked up and heaved down the alley where she landed hard on her hands and knees. Small rocks bit into her skin. The shorter boy was picking up her coins. Munni popped up, thinking about trying to get her money back, but the taller boy came toward her.
"Munni," said a woman's voice behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw her mother approaching. "Get behind me."
Munni ran behind her mother.
"What are you going to do old beggar woman?" The taller boy sneered and kept advancing, clenched fists at his side.
He stopped suddenly. His eyes widened, his mouth opened as if to scream, but no sound came out. The other boy looked up from collecting Munni's coins, then dashed down the alley, his friend right behind him. Munni ran past her mother and collected her cup. Only one coin remained, but at least it was the ten-rupee coin. When she turned back to leave the alley, her mother was gone.
The next morning Munni stayed back in the village, too sore from the beating by her handler to beg. She'd turned in fourteen rupees and her minimum was fifteen. Sunlight poured through the one window. Her mother was not visible and no sound came from the back room. Either she was still sleeping, which was unlikely, or she was already out, probably doing laundry in the river before the day became too hot. Munni ached too bad to even get breakfast, besides she had only the small portion of rice from the night before that her mother had told her to save. Hopefully, later she'd be able to move. She closed her eyes again and fell back to sleep.
Munni drifted in and out of a dreamless slumber. Finally, when she awakened around noon, she noticed her blue dress hanging on the clothesline that ran across the middle of the room. Her mother had washed it. She unrolled from her blanket and pushed herself to a sitting position. Excited voices drifted in from outside, not far from her house. Flies buzzed loudly, thick by the curtain to the other room. The stale smell of lye mixed with dead animal. The voices grew more excited. She heard someone say something about white people and a preacher. With tremendous effort, she got to her feet and slipped on her dress; she'd wash herself in the river later. But where was her mother? She wanted her to come with her to see what was going on.
She approached the back room softly calling her mother. No reply. When she reached the curtain, she hesitated. A fly landed on her arm. She slapped it off. The stench became unbearable. She pulled the curtain aside and stared. Now she understood everything.
She let the curtain fall, turned away, and choked back the tears. The voices outside started to move away. She struggled to the stairs, then up them, each step stinging her butt where she'd taken most of the beating. When she reached her door and peered out, she saw one of the young white women from the group yesterday disappear into the home of Ganga and Kapil. On the road above the village sat a small white truck with four doors. It was empty. She hurried best as she could to the neighbor's house. Quietly, she pushed their door open and peered inside.
Sitting in a lopsided circle on blankets over the dirt floor were seven or eight women from her village and the group of white people she'd seen yesterday. In the middle was a man she'd also seen twice before. The traveling preacher, who visited the small villages, wore pressed tan slacks and a short-sleeve brown collared shirt. In his hand he held a book. He spoke loudly, first in Hindi then in what she thought was English. Before him, a young woman named Jamuna writhed on the floor. Munni remembered that Jamuna had been acting strange lately, fearful, frequently crying out and yelling obscenities. She'd even chased after Munni's friend Rahul with a paring knife, trying to cut him before being wrestled to the ground and disarmed by Rahul's father. The preacher said something about a demon spirit in her, which made sense to Munni, as Jamuna was usually a sweet-tempered girl. The preacher commanded the spirit to come out of her and leave her alone. Jamuna moaned and rolled around. Several of the white girls cried. The women from the village rocked back and forth, their eyes squeezed shut, lips moving feverishly. Finally, Jamuna laid still, breathing heavily. The preacher then spoke about God and Munni backed out of the doorway and sat on a short, dried mud wall that surrounded half of the home.
A short time later, Rahul rushed past her, not even bothering to say hi, and flung open the door of the house. She heard him say something about a policeman. She heard footsteps behind her and turned. A uniformed man walked toward the house. Before the policeman reached the house, the preacher came out and started talking to him. Munni could not hear what was being said, but she could tell by the resigned expression of the preacher that he did not like what the officer was saying. Eventually, the preacher re-entered the house, but moments later came back out, the group of white people following him. The officer had retreated up the hill and stood between his truck and the white truck, watching the group.
An old woman named Chandra approached the preacher, followed by several of the other older women in the village. They all had on their brightest saris, Chandra's being green and blue with colorful birds decorating it. The old woman was always complaining of some ailment and today proved no different. She told the preacher she had terrible pains in her head. The preacher put his hands on her head, said a prayer and Chandra smiled and went away blessing him saying her pain was gone. Other village women crowded around the preacher clamoring for his attention.
She turned. Her mother stood where the officer had been earlier. He was now walking back down the hill toward the preacher's group. Munni smiled and waved, but then frowned and lowered her head.
"Munni," her mother said again, this time gesturing for her daughter to join her.
Munni pushed off the wall and ascended the hill to her mother, who lifted the tailgate of the white truck and told her to get in.
"It's the only way things will get better for you. I can't take care of you anymore."
"I know, Ma, but -"
"Please Munni, get in. Stay with the man who owns this truck." Her mother glanced down the hill. So did Munni. The officer turned away from the group and started back toward his vehicle. "Hurry."
Munni climbed into the truck and her mother slammed the tailgate. She heard her mother say, "Be silent and don't get up until the truck gets where it's going."
A single tear cleaned a path through the caked dust on Munni's face.
The white Land Rover stopped on the road above Munni's village. Kabir climbed out his side while Munni jumped out the other side. She hadn't really wanted to come, but the man had insisted they go to her village and clear up this matter. Munni considered the matter resolved. She wanted to stay with him.
Kabir trotted down the hill, and Munni followed. The mud had finally dried, so the soft white shoes she'd borrowed from Kabir's daughter stayed clean. They found Ganga gathering sticks a few yards behind the village.
"Pastor Kabir, what brings you here a second day this week?"
"Do you know this little girl?"
"Of course. Hello, Munni. She is Saraswathi's little girl. Why do you ask?"
"Have you seen her mother lately?"
"Yes, I saw her just today, down by the river." She looked away and a pensive expression settled over her face.
A ripple ran through Munni's belly. Ganga had seen her mother?
"What is it?" asked Kabir.
"It's just that, well," Ganga said, "I'm not sure what Saraswathi was doing at the river. She had no clothes to wash. She wasn't bathing. She was staring out at the river. Not moving. And when I said hello, she didn't answer."
"Where does she live?"
Ganga bunched the sticks she'd gathered under one arm and led Kabir and Munni to Munni's home. They knocked, which Munni thought silly, and when no one answered, they entered.
Kabir coughed. He covered his nose. Dim sunlight filtered through the worn, blue curtain. The noise of the flies was intense. The pastor swept aside the curtain to the back room. Munni peeked around him. Nothing had changed.
In the center of the low bed lay the rotting corpse of her mother dressed in a blue and white striped sari.
"Is that-" Kabir started to ask.
"Yes, that's Munni's mother," replied Ganga. "But I don't understand. I've seen her every day for the past week."
They both looked at Munni, but she turned away and left the house. She heard Kabir speak behind her, so she paused outside the door, leaving it open.
"What about her father?"
"A drunk," Ganga softly said, "Useless." But Munni heard anyway.
"Any other relatives?"
"None who would take in an extra mouth to feed."
"Then I'll keep the girl at our house until we can figure something else out. My daughter loves having a new friend."
Munni smiled and trotted up the hill. Standing beside the Land Rover, she looked toward the river. In the distance spanned the new bridge. Munni sucked in her breath. On the riverbank, she saw a woman wearing a blue and white striped sari. Her mother waved. Munni waved back. Then the woman who had comforted her all her life turned into a blue and white tiger and leaped out over the river. At the top of her leap, the tiger disintegrated into thousands of tiny particles that fell sparkling into the river.
Munni climbed into the truck. She knew what would happen that day. Several men from the village would burn her mother's body then put part of the ashes into the river, part in a hole they'd dig in her yard, and part on the floor of her house.
Kabir climbed in on the driver's side. He looked at Munni and said, "I'm so sorry about your mother. Would you like to come live with me for awhile?"
Munni stared at the river and nodded.