BITTER

 

Gouri mashi moved in with my parents after her husband died. Her husband’s wealth had funded our family for years; she had no children, and she said she was lonely and would like my parents’ company in her old age. In any case, I was getting married and moving away, so my room was available for her to take. It worked out well. At least for her.

Then a year passed, and my daughter Piu was born. Ma visited me, and suggested with great tact that I should postpone coming home with Piu until she was old enough. Gouri mashi did not like young children very much. This wasn’t news to me, but it incensed me to know I wasn’t welcome in my own house with my newborn.

    “Old enough?” I asked my mother, incredulous.

    My parents’ inexplicable deference to Gouri mashi’s every wish puzzled me. Either they were wary of hurting her feelings after what she had gone through, or they needed her money so badly as to never protest or demur, or perhaps they were just a bit afraid of her. I could have easily believed the third; alongside Gouri mashi, my parents appeared like cowering mice. All right, that sounded harsh. Nodding dolls, then.

    The house where my parents lived and I grew up in was ancient but expansive. It was built in 1949 by Dadu, my maternal grandfather. He was a Baishya Saha and belonged to a family of well-to-do moneylenders; thus they were only slightly worse off than the Zamindars when they migrated from East Bengal during the partition. Our 2000-square-foot independent house featured four large bedrooms, a rectangular hallway, and a central kitchen that led to a tolerably well-tended garden. The walls outside were built of red brick decorated with green shutters and awnings. There were airy verandas flanked by curved banisters and large embellished windows in French style which occasionally doubled up as doors. Inside, the ceilings were made lofty to keep out the heat and damp, the floor was black-and-white patterned marble, and the furniture was made of solid oak and teak.

    Each room had a four-poster bed, some easy chairs, and wooden cupboards shuddering under a mounting pile of books, crystal, and china. The walls were filled with sepia-tinted photographs—mainly of me growing up with the occasional pictures of various Gods and Goddesses, some of them in calendars which had been collected over the years but never discarded (“Because they have God’s picture on them, Shona”). It was a house that had been lovingly put together and then littered with trinkets of three generations’ haphazard ambitions.

    When my mother married my father—a distant, impoverished relative introduced to Dadu by yet another impoverished, albeit closer, cousin—he came to live with her family. The potential my Dadu saw in my father when he agreed to the marriage never came to fruition; my father retired as a pressroom supervisor in a now-defunct printing press with hardly any bestowment. Consequently, over the years the family’s finances dwindled and with the rising cost of upkeep, the house fell to a pale shadow of its former grandeur. Yet, it was my home and beloved.

     “Best when Piu is three or four years old,” Ma told me now, apologetically.

    “And until then?” I gritted my teeth.

    “Baba and I will visit you,” Ma said.

    “How can you ask me, your own daughter, not to visit?”

    My mother lowered her eyes and mumbled something about the house needing repairs, Baba’s retirement savings not being enough, the amount my marriage had cost them… “And who paid for the bulk of it anyway?” Ma asked. And finally, “Do not forget how much she has suffered. It was about time I understood.

    My relationship with Gouri mashi was scratchy at best. Around her, I was no longer the rambunctious brat, the outspoken terror; I considered my responses to her carefully and avoided running into her altogether if I could. I never admitted it to anyone, but in truth, she gave me the creeps. This feeling had grown over time, even though as a child I rarely ever met her; I would see her about once a year, and those occasions came up only after I turned seven.

    Mashi is the Bengali word for “one’s mother’s sister”, so Gouri mashi was just that, my mother’s older sister. But she wasn’t a blood relative; she had been adopted. When my mother told me that the first time, I made sense of why none of us looked like her and forgave the gene fairy.

    Statuesque and self-absorbed, she used to be a frequent object of the para envy and gossip. Envy because she used to be somewhat of a local beauty. Over 5 feet 6 inches tall (unusual for a Bengali woman, even more so back then), pale-complexioned, ruddy-cheeked, long-haired, and dainty-featured, she turned heads when she walked past, even when she was sixty, the age she died. And gossip because of her immense wealth, her husband’s old family money, and how it had come about.

    His had been a family of local land-owning Zamindars who had diversified into owning jute mills and later defence equipment. Popular folklore had it that he’d first spied her on one of her visits to the grocery store next to his largest mill, the mill he spent most of his time in. He watched her come and go at the same time every other day. Her hips swaying, long hair moving along with it, a small smile playing on her lips—ostensibly enticing. Yet her demeanor was aloof, standoffish; she acknowledged nothing and no one in her path. It was as if she were gliding through a narrow tunnel, at the end of which lay a treasure on which her eyes were set. That treasure, however, was upstairs, watching her from his sequestered second floor office, his heart aching. Widowed for over two years and with no children to care for, he was ready to move on. And the perfect woman had appeared.

    Fortunately for him, sixteen-year-old Gouri mashi reciprocated willingly when the short, balding man with early onset of Vitiligo professed his admiration for her apsara-like angelic beauty and begged her to marry him. Her adoptive family—i.e. my maternal grandparents—were ecstatic and the reason is obvious. They’d been struggling to make ends meet—their money used up to build the house and set up a new life in a new city—so this was a godsend, a judicious way in which to reduce one hungry mouth and get some much-needed funds into the family fold.

    And with money, Gouri mashi transformed herself; money was the fairy godmother that transmuted this unfortunate destitute to a burgeoning princess. She took lessons from her indulgent mother-in-law and her husband’s many sisters, who were thrilled to have a gorgeous, nubile addition to their family, someone who could help continue the family name. From them she learned to dress well—the most expensive zardosi, benarasi, and dhakai sarees pinned and tucked neatly on her well rounded, receptive frame by a giggling coterie. They taught her to be cultured and articulate in her speech and attentive in her presence, so that none outside could guess she was unschooled. And a few skills she picked up on her own, like taking care never to display her emotions to the outer world—a veneer built day by day, bit by bit, till the coating hardened and became her own.

    Only we knew—my family and her devoted husband—about the recurrent nightmares, the episodes of sleepwalking and weeping, and the brusque swatches of temper in the mornings after. But to everyone else, she was a beautiful woman with an ill-fated past, an enigma, a woman you’d remember long after she had left your side. People referred to her in their conversations as they would a deity, and even when she’d failed, year after year, to produce the much-awaited progeny, she was neither admonished nor pitied—an occurrence unheard of at that time.

    But she and her life, resplendent as it seemed to everyone later, hadn’t begun well. It was a sordid tale, what happened to her when she was a child, when she lost everything, everyone she knew and loved, in one tumultuous day. This story of her life was pieced together by my Dadu, who’d gathered the rubbles from a weepy, traumatized child’s blathering. He later forbade anyone from asking her or talking about it, and no one had, for a long, long time, even after he had died. Part of Gouri mashi’s aura was that we were all a bit afraid of her. But we knew some things, of course; Dadu told Dida and, well, after that everyone knew. Over time and over generations it flew from lips to ears, embellished by each carrier to create sufficient drama. And each time we told the story, we added in the end, with a sympathetic shake of head, just how lucky Gouri mashi had been to come out of it alive.

She was six years old when it happened.

    The winds of change had been blowing for a while; welcome for some, disquieting to others. On 20th June, 1947, members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly voted for the partition of Bengal by signing the Mountbatten Plan that divided Bengal into two parts—East Bengal, with a Muslim majority, was to be made a province of Pakistan, and West Bengal, with a largely Hindu population, was to be annexed to the Union of India. But just as any other treaty, this was a plan made on paper, following months of deliberation inside closed rooms, by people whose lives were going to be minimally affected and possibly even enhanced by its ramifications. When the plan was out in the open, in the midst of people whose existences it was going to throw into turmoil, the resentment was tacit no more and grew quickly in force and toxicity, fueled on by malignant rumors of those with vested interests.

    Millions of people were going to move; they were going to leave behind decades and possibly centuries of history behind, the familiar neighbourhood, the lanes they walked in, the houses they grew up in, the river that fed them and the ramshackle skyline beyond, the comfort of folklore, the routine humdrum of the life they had been promised as children. It was unfathomable to most, almost a personal affront, why this had to happen. Why them? Why their houses and families? Why did they have to be the ones to leave?

    The ones that were staying behind felt what could only be called the arrogance of the occupiers. They took it upon themselves to get rid of the infiltrators, the neighbors who in the turn of a day had become their enemies, their subjugators, their decades of living together peacefully now a mere farce. Their lives had to now be cleansed, their villages purged of these people, the trespassers on their land. And so the riots began, accompanied by widespread pilfering, burning, the ravaging of entire villages, with their men, women, children, cattle, and everything that was worthy of destruction.

    Oblivious to all that, Gouri mashi lived like any other child then: She played with her marbles, fished in the lake, and flew kites. And it was not all play: She helped her mother cook and clean the house and had already started to read a few words, taught by her grandfather, a postmaster. Gouri mashi had told my Dida this, when as a child she used to still talk about it. She’d talked about her father—also a postmaster, but a struggling novice at twenty three—and her mother, a wilting nineteen-year-old with two children and the tongue of a harridan.

    They had been late to leave. Her father had probably thought that things wouldn’t get very bad; after all, Hindus and Muslim had lived in the village of Sonamati in harmony together for as long as anybody could remember. They celebrated Durga Puja and Eid together, ate at each other’s houses, lived in mixed neighbourhoods, mingled in the market, worked and played together. The newspaper articles and accounts of incidents in the other villages were surely wrong. Things weren’t as bad as everyone said; this was temporary lunacy, soon to pass.

    But it just takes seconds for the wind to turn, to swell, and to destroy.

    Late in the night before Indian Independence, on August 15, 1947, in Sonamati, a lone match was lit and flung on a thatched roof. The fire spread, moving from one thatched roof to another, extending to the pukka houses, rapidly growing in mass and vigor. Soon enough, the smell and smoke stirred people from their sleep. Gouri mashi’s father watched dumbfounded from his half-ajar door as a man came stumbling toward them, crying, “They’ve set fire to Sonamati… They’re killing everyone!” The man was bleeding profusely, and the village behind him was in shambles: men running dazed, women screaming, infants wailing. The fire was now in full blaze, railroading everything in its path. The smoke was making Gouri mashi's father gag and he could barely see. His children had begun to shriek in confusion, even as his wife tugged at his elbow, panic stricken.

    Then her father saw something that turned his blood cold—a gang of wild-eyed, long-haired men in skull caps and bloodied clothes chasing people, their daggers slashing anything that moved. He didn’t recognize them and he didn’t wait to. Bolting the door, he turned to his family and said quietly to his wife, “Hurry up, get the children, wake up baba, and pack everything we can carry. We need to leave. Now.”

    They fled the village that night, escaping through the back door, carrying little with them, save for a few clothes, food and water for the journey, some books, and a fistful of gold jewellery. With a six-year-old Gouri mashi were her parents, an ailing grandfather, and a four-month-old baby brother.

    Through dark and wilderness they ran, their feet trampling thorns and bristles. Frequently they stopped to take a sip of water or calm the baby, who, troubled by the commotion and unexpected disturbance to his nighttime nap, had begun to sniffle. Afraid they would be heard, his mother wrapped him tighter in her arms, cooing softly in his ears when he stirred.

    After two hours of struggling in the dark and stumbling through the dense undergrowth, they reached a patch of former habitation, now deserted, its huts, gardens, fields, and lone temple empty as an abandoned movie set, a ghost town. The neighbours had already been there to cut and maim. The stench of blood and rotting flesh was terrible, but it was the safest place to be, her father knew; the smell of old blood usually turned rioters away. So the exhausted family took shelter in the temple, eating food soggy with sweat, and finally settling in to sleep on clumsily gathered hay. They stayed hidden in the temple’s inner sanctum for most of the next day until disaster struck. A group of young Muslim boys had strayed to that open expanse of decaying carcass to relieve themselves and heard from the edifice nearby a baby’s cry, feeble but unmistakable, a sign of life.

    “What do you think happened next?” My mother had told me the story when I was young. It had been her life’s mission to tell us, in excruciating detail, the history of everyone in the family, so that we learned to appreciate our heritage and never take anything for granted. I can say this for myself: I was unmoved—her hyperbole did nothing for me. I had plenty problems of my own.

    But I had to admit, Gouri mashi’s was an intriguing tale.

    “They were animals,” Ma said, her words trembling with ire. “Particularly the younger ones ─ both the Muslims and the Hindus ─ cutting, wounding, raping any living being in their path. But why call out their religion? Miscreants have no religion.”

    “Did they kill everyone in her family?” I asked. My mother nodded.

    “What about Gouri mashi?”

    “She was hiding in the attic with her little brother. They did not see her.”

    “And her brother?” I asked.

    My ma gave a sad shrug of her shoulders as if to say, “you know what happened.”

     “How did they find him?” It was frustrating to have so many gaps and no one credible enough to fill them. “What happened to him?” I asked, not willing to give up.

My mother scattered the finely chopped onions into the rumbling mustard oil and shook her head somberly. Then wiping her forehead, she said, “Only she lived.” Her voice tapered in deference to the sad thought. Then, after a beat, and as usual, she ended with, “You guys are lucky, to be given everything and never go through that kind of pain.” But my mother hadn’t gone through it either. She was born a year after the partition, safely ensconced in a peaceful neighbourhood in West Bengal. She just liked to be melodramatic.

    I remember listening to the story several times, each time embroidered with a new detail. The ending, however, remained the same, beige and abrupt.

        A motley group of people walking with their life’s belongings toward the newly-sequestered Hindu part of Bengal found a dazed Gouri mashi wandering through a burnt field, holding a bag—a hefty green cloth jhooli—close to her chest, babbling through dried snot and tears. One among the group took pity on her and asked her to walk alongside him and his newly-wedded wife. They were my mother’s parents—my grandparents—Dadu and Dida.

***

My earliest memory of her, also the most fateful, was from when I was seven years old. Her husband had been travelling for work and Gouri mashi came to stay with us for five days. My mother, in an ill-founded desire to make us bond, suggested Gouri mashi and I share a bed to sleep at night. I ran to the bathroom teary-eyed when Ma broke the news to me. Gouri mashi wasn’t too enthusiastic either.

    “You are grown up now,” she murmured. “You better be good.”

    “I’m hardly any trouble,” I informed her, miffed.

    “We’ll see,” she said, and in a rare display of affection pinched my cheek.

    I grimaced, not least because my heart was jumping about in my ribs, filled with anxiety of sleeping next to my dreaded mashi. But it was also as if I had some sort of premonition of what was to follow.

    We turned in early that night and fell asleep quickly. We had had a long day of loitering, eating, and greeting relatives who had wandered into our home to meet mashi (and collect the truckload of gifts she’d brought along). So we were tired.

    It was around two in the morning when I first heard, the faint words like a tickle, a light prod at the back of my head.

    Don’t cry. Don’t, please. Stop. Don’t cry.

    I struggled to make sense of it, breathing harder as my mind ploughed through. The cries grew louder, more frantic and my mind resisted, growing muggier. Faint and loud, the words undulated in my subconscious, and I tried to move closer, listen better, understand what was being said. Who was crying? Where was it coming from? It must be a nightmare I needed waking from.

    Until finally, with considerable effort, I pried my eyes open… and the fog cleared.

Next to me, Gouri mashi was weeping. Tears were streaming from her closed eyes, her body convulsing in helpless waves. She was crying in her sleep, her mouth uttering the words I could hardly understand: heavily accented, letters garbled.

    “What is it, mashi?” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder to calm her.

    She whimpered, “Ask him to stop.”

    I nudged her. “Mashi…”

    “Stop, babai. Stop. Please. They will hear us,” she wept.

     “Wake up,” I whispered, confused and anxious. So this was one of the nightmares my ma used to talk about. I sidled my body closer to look at her; her eyes were shut tight, tiny fishnet-like wrinkles forming around them on her pale skin. She was struggling with it, with whatever it was that she was seeing. Her fingers trembled and her lips twitched. A string of sweat had formed over her lips. Her face was flushed. Her eyebrows juddered.

    Mashi…” I said, louder this time.

    This time Gouri mashi jerked her eyes open. I felt her body shudder as she instinctively recoiled. I shrank away from her too and lifted the blanket to my face.

    “It’s me,” I told her, my voice shaking. “It’s Kakoli. You’re in bed. You’re at home.”

    It took a few seconds for her eyes to focus, for her mind to comprehend. Meanwhile, I was grappling with the fear that had overcome me. Gouri mashi wasn’t the most pleasant being when sentient, but this was even worse. She seemed like a different person: a lost child, a whimsical girl, a crazy old woman, chunks of all these, and not the good parts.

    “What is it?” I asked. “Were you having a bad dream?”

    This time she heard me; the clouds of gray lifted from her eyes, and a confused, embarrassed smile lit her flushed face. The transformation was almost palpable.

    “Kakoli…” she started.

    “Yes?” I replied.

    She smiled sheepishly.

    We stared at each other, the bedroom’s orange nightlight crafting silhouettes of our motionless bodies. Our eyes were locked; the whites of her pupils and the set smile of her lips held me in thrall. Neither of us moved for at least five minutes.

    Then abruptly, she turned, facing away from me, and murmured, “Go to sleep.”

If possible, I felt more frightened then, and my seven-year-old brain tried to process what had just happened, to make some sense if it, until finally, exhausted, it dozed off.

Later that day, after I’d finished my breakfast, I asked Ma, “Where is Gouri mashi?”

    “In the garden,” Ma said.

    “What is she doing?”

    “Why don’t you go and see her?” Ma suggested, smiling. She was at it again, trying to make me like her—or rather I think she wanted Gouri mashi to approve of me.

    I stood, thoughts racing in my mind.

    “What is it?” Ma asked. “You’ve been quiet all morning. No complaints on being served egg and rice again today. What’s going on? Are you unwell?”

    “Ma, remember the dreams Gouri mashi has?” I asked.

    My mother nodded and said, “Did she wake you up?”

    I said yes. “What are they about?”

    Babai?”

    “Yes.”

    She considered me for a few seconds before she said, “Babai means little boy, you know that, right? I think she is sad about her brother.”

    “She was weeping.” I was scared, I wanted to add, but thought it unwise to worry my mother. She was hassled enough each time Gouri mashi visited. Pushing back my chair, I walked to the kitchen’s window and peeped out into the garden, my feet on tiptoe. “She’s by the Makal tree, the one you tell me to stay away from,” I said.

    “Because it is…” my mother prompted.

    “…poisonous,” I replied, dutifully.

    She nodded, smiling, “The fruits are poisonous, yes. They’re so attractive, aren’t they? Bright red like a pomegranate. Who’d think…” she paused. “They’re your mashi’s favourite, by the way. She planted it when she was a child. Your Dadu helped her. They also planted the mango, lotkon, and jackfruit, but that one’s her favourite. She says it reminds her of home.”

    “And Dida allowed it?” I asked, referring to my maternal grandmother, who, by all accounts I’d heard, was quite authoritarian. Both my maternal grandparents died young, before I was even born.

    “She loved her… sometimes I think...” She turned away from me. I knew even then she meant to add, “more than me.

    “It’s a creeper, not a tree. Baba says the tree’s proper name is Hodgsonia,” I said, putting on scholarly airs to impress my mother. But she wasn’t listening.

    “Ma?” I said, taking a few steps towards her. Her eyes were lost, gazing into the distance, her body leaning back on the kitchen countertop, one arm folded across her belly, the other limp by her side. She didn’t see me.

    “Ma,” I whispered urgently. Too many people went crazy on me that day. I wonder if a couple of planets had aligned to rake up all the latent lunacy.

    And then it happened. My mother started to recite, her voice low at first, then gradually mutating to a shrill, taut mélange of notes. I watched with my mouth open as the words, along with her chin, rose.

Jadu, eto bada ranga, jadu eto bada ranga

car tito dekhate paro, jabo tomar sariga

nlm tito, nisunde tito, tito makal phal,

tahar adhik tito kanye, bon satiner ghar.

 

(This is great fun, dear, this is great fun,

Show me four bitters and I will go along with you.

Neem is bitter, nisunda is bitter, bitter is makal fruit,

But the bitterest of all, dear maiden, is living with one’s co-wife.)

 

    “Ma!” I stammered. “What are you doing?” The words she had spoken, replete with the kind of dreamy histrionics as they were, echoed on in my ears.

    “Aren’t these beautiful?” she said, smiling. “These are the great Bengali poet Tagore’s words. Your mashi used to recite them when she was a child.”

    I nodded but stayed quiet, knowing she wasn’t finished.

    “The flower of a Makal tree blooms for only a day, and then falls off,” she said. “Very sad, na, Kakoli? Why did God make a tree like this? Fruit with bitter skin which cannot be eaten, flowers that live but for a day, such a short-lived life, of no use to anyone.”

    She fell silent then, a flash of warning in her eyes as we heard footsteps approaching. Gouri mashi entered the kitchen, wiped her feet on the mat, and walked out to the hallway, ignoring us. My mother gave me a slight smile and turned to busy herself in arranging the plates back on the shelves.

    That night I saw Gouri mashi in my dreams, wandering about in the garden, grappling about in the darkness, the rain pelting down on her long, graying hair, making it stick to her face. She was shrieking the Makal tree song, flaying her hands wildly. I woke up several times in cold sweat while the heroine of those dreams slept peacefully next to me.

***

After that night, whenever Gouri mashi came to stay with us, she insisted on sleeping separately. She also seemed to spend more and more of her time out in the garden.

For some reason, the Makal tree was beginning to wilt much like Gouri mashi was. “It won’t last very long,” she told no one when she walked back into the kitchen one day. I had just turned ten.

    She was right, of course. The creeper’s spindly vine that clung to the fence had splintered in several places, a host of lesions and splits appearing on it. The previously lush green leaves were now turning yellow, a sticky putrid secretion on them, spreading like a slow plague. The bright, red fruits however were like dashes of lipstick on the dull gray-green, cheerful and full of promise.

***

Strapped with debt and rising expenses, I sold the house a year after its last resident—my mother—passed on.

    Contractors arrived to raze my beloved home: bulldozers turning soil, crunching stones, cutting down trees, levelling to the ground my Dadu’s labour of love. The entire neighbourhood was going to be cleared to make way for an upscale apartment complex: a sign of the future, a path toward progress. We had been fighting this change for long, and it was time to secede. My parents were gone, and I could not fight on my own.

I’d signed all the papers and never visited while the contractors were at their job, so I was surprised when I got a call from one of them early one day. My husband picked up the phone’s cordless receiver and passed it over to me. “It’s Anirban,he told me, “and he doesn’t sound very happy.” Anirban was the lead contractor of the building project. I took the receiver and had barely started with my greeting when he cut me short, his words tumbling forth in agitation, “Moha bipod hoye poreche.” A disaster has fallen.

    “What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.

    He struggled to speak for a few minutes, wheezing and gasping for breath. I racked my brains to think of the possibilities—had a roof fallen or perhaps a pillar cracked, leaving someone hurt… or dead? Surely not that!

    I waited awhile until Anirban seemed to have recovered.

    Ki holo?” I asked, the anxiety growing in me.

    Matir neeche…” he wheezed, “Makal gacher tolay…” Under the ground… under the Makal tree.

    “What is it? What?” I asked, my voice rising. My husband stopped rummaging through the pile of newspapers to look at me curiously. I gave him a wan, reassuring smile and faced away, worried, wondering.

    The garden had been overrun with weeds the last I saw it, the Makal tree a slumped, gloomy ghost, a prod away from crumbling to the ground. It was a good thing they were digging up the whole place, cutting down the rotting trees and climbers and burning the calf-long weeds to start fresh.

    I couldn’t care less about the garden or the Makal tree. Anirban still hadn’t told me what the problem was. I was growing impatient.

    “Tell me, Anirban… what is it?” I asked.

    Kankal, shishur kankal,” he cried. Skeleton, a baby’s skeleton.

    My heart skipped a beat.

    “What?” The word was stuck in my throat. I coughed once and mumbled into the receiver, “What did you just say?”

    Kankal… skeleton… of a baby. Buried in the ground under the Makal tree,” he explained breathlessly.

    “What are you saying? Are you sure?”

    And he babbled over the phone about how they had to cut the tree down like they had the others, and were in the process of turning out the soil underneath when something crunched oddly under their spades, almost five feet below the ground. They had dug further down, quickly and expertly, and then… there lay the disintegrating skeleton, now mostly bones, wrapped tightly in a tatty green cloth. “What a disaster it was!” he cried. “What bad luck for the project! They had to inform the police now. Everything was going to be delayed.”

I heard him through the growing haze in my mind, a flood of emotions overtaking me.

Had Dadu known? He must have… He must have helped her bury his body in the garden; it was too much work for a six year old. Had Dida known? And what about my mother, my father? Was the boy already dead, when they found her? Or had she been carrying his dying body in her jhooli, her green bag? He wouldn’t have survived the long journey to other side, it must have been too much for a boy of four months.

    But no one had ever mentioned him, or said anything about him dying in that arduous journey. Why?

    Then I remembered Gouri mashi’s nightmare, the desperate plea that came out of her lips even as her eyes were closed and her body struggled in sleep. “Stop, babai. Stop. Please. They will hear us. Did she perhaps, to avoid being found, smother her brother…? No, this wasn’t possible.

    Or was it? Could it be…?

    “His death was like bitter skin,” I whispered.

        Like the fruits of the Makal tree.

Smita Bhattacharya