★ ★ ★ ★
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it.”
—John F Kennedy
The flame flickered on Suma’s fingertip, a dry leaf crackle, before sputtering out with a pop. She gritted her teeth to hold in a scream, slamming the bottle hard into the pile of rejects, rattle of glass drawing frightened bleats from cows grazing outside. She dipped her finger in the next batch and held it to the soot stained gold flamed wick of the kerosene lamp. Again, the yellow-gold tipped flame cracked and popped before dying out. Suma’s clenching-unclenching fist left tiny moon-shaped indents in her palm as she waited, hoping that drops from the next bottles would give her the blue flame; unlike flickers of gold this flame was a ripple on a stagnant pond, a noiseless sway that guaranteed that this was the pure batch that would go in a jeep to the city.
This flame, when it came, always made her swell with pride, just like when she used an English word correctly, without a snicker from her cousin Preetika. After her parents’ death, Suma’s grandmother had pulled her out of school, to live with her aunt. Her cousin Preetika, the same age as Suma, was now in the sixth standard in the government-aided school. Preetika would drop an English word in conversation and Suma would carefully collect and tuck it in the corners of her tongue, each pleat unfolding into whisper and then folding back in. She would then sit by the pond in the evening, and repeat; some words like ‘okay’ were easy enough but there were others, like ‘competition’ that required a day or two to master. There were times when ‘Scissors’ would become ‘seejur’ and Preetika’s giggle would bounce off of her teeth, morph into heat and crawl up Suma’s face. Then there were times when the word would walk into the sentence, lap at its feet and slip out without notice. These moments and blue flames were rare, but when they came, she would let herself steal a cashew apple from the pile kept aside for feni, flesh ripe with faded crimson skin, and plunge her teeth into its cheeks, dribble-like juice bursting out, her tongue soaked in a fight between sweet and sour.
The pearl-white drop from the last bottle sitting on her index finger seemed to be mocking Suma, but the elusive blue flame wasn’t the reason for this; it was only an itch, far from the festering pustule that was this barrier of language. She had noticed a mysterious new board sign that had appeared near the pond three days ago, on her way back, after delivering a crate to the riverside shack. She could read letters, words escaping her, every time she tried to piece them together. This drop sitting on her finger reminded her that when she tried to weave those letters together, they sounded like the gurgling noises from a child; her inability to fulfil this desire to break chains that were coiled around tongue and teeth was eating away at her.
There were others in the village that had seen the board. Savitri, the help, who had a torn earlobe teamed with the accompanying smell of betel-nut and a perpetual anxious giggle, had been the one to tell them about it. Savitri and Suma’s aunt had clicked their tongues together, hands tearing at each side of the cashew-apple, some pieces going into mud pot, others into mouth, as they discussed the board.
“God knows who put it there”, Savitri had said, between tearing, squeezing and scratching the inside of her forearm. Her aunt had touched her palm to her forehead and gestured with her other hand opened up to the sky.
“This is the work of the devil himself. Look at all the changes in the village—Raghu’s drinking problem, Pramila’s newfound skill at fixing blouses and Padma’s son’s ear ache. The apothecary had to pour burning oil into the boy’s left ear.”
“What about those wolves, Amma?” Savitri had said, “Padma saw them early in the morning near that wretched board.”
“The wolves are surely a sign of misfortune. Maybe we’ve angered the gods. If we don’t rid the board of its curse, we’ll all catch a cough. An unstoppable cough”, her aunt had said.
After a few days, Suma and Preetika sat by the pond, their feet flapping into water, gazes fervently scanning the rusty sides of the board. It was now slightly tilted to the side in rain soaked mud.
“Who do you think put it here?” Preetika asked.
“I don’t know. What does it say?” Suma made her question seem nonchalant, a casual shrug hiding days of curiosity.
“John F Kennedy Road”, Preetika said.
Suma’s tongue weighed the words, ‘Kennedy’ voiced in measured breath, making sure not to stress on the second syllable. The passing of air between gaps of teeth when she said ‘f’ felt like a caress, a gentle release from linguistic bondage; an escape from her own language that lacked the sound. “Kennedy was the president of America”, Preetika said her tone mimicking her history teacher at school. Their feet were now moving in patterns; Suma drew curves of J and F and K on the water’s surface. She pictured their current leader in her pressed white saree, looking out of billboards near the river. She tried to construct this John Kennedy’s face with a similar look of poise. She imagined him speaking in English, voice like the ones she had listened to on radio, and when he spoke he would bend slightly, she decided, and his words would be softened at the edges by kindness.
She left Preetika at the pond when she heard her aunt call out to her, wet foot making a large slightly jagged J, and went back to check on the mud pot with cut pieces of cashew-apple. The seven-day-old fruit gave off the smell of sweat and rot. To her, making feni was like taking a walk in the village. She felt trapped in its familiarity, in the roads, the sandy orange of the river and in despair on brows. She transferred the contents into a copper pot, covering the top with a cloth. When she first learnt how to make feni, the process was exciting. The lowering of the pipe into the copper pot, the other end inside a bottle, the vessel of water placed above the pot, the boiling, the fumes and the condensation contained a story, one that ended with the blue flame flying like a curtain in the wind. Now, it had turned into a lullaby that she had outgrown. Only the flame gave her a semblance of solace, the fumes making her body weightless, her mind floating in its cusp. She wanted the fume to carry her over the river, into the city, where people wrote songs in English and drank pure white fenny in tall glasses.
* * *
Raghu lifted the pump, adjusted it between neck and ear and walked, one foot leaving a trail on mud, the other big, deep footprints. Suresh traced a line of little footprints next to his father’s large ones, stopping when he saw the remnants of a large J. He had already learnt till ‘P’ at school. Sudha miss would say don’t hold the pencil so tight, he thought, looking at the cracks in the letter traced in mud. The irrigation pump needed to be carried from master’s house to his brother’s, three kilometres away. Raghu’s head tilted up to see the top of trees stretching out to touch the whites of the sky.
“Is it twelve thirty now?” he asked Suresh, crossing his eyes to see the top of his son’s head.
“Not yet, Poppa, Five more minutes.”
This was a game they had devised on the way. Raghu guessed what time it was and Suresh twisted the old leather watch given by master, the dial always on the inside of his wrist, hanging off of it, to tell him he was wrong. This was the only way Raghu had found to engage the otherwise silent boy who thought his attention was better suited to kicking pebbles.
After Suresh’s mother had abandoned them for another man, Raghu and Suresh had been pulled apart, as if the string binding them had been cut open. The boy had grown distant, monosyllabic, his gaze accusatory when it fell on his father. He barely saw Suresh during the day, all his time spent in master’s field, working to pay off mounting debts, and his evenings were turning into frequent visits to the riverside shack. With waning strength, welcome hunger and a body that was more trap than home, his days circled around trying not to fall apart. Suresh was that glue, fastening him to ground, albeit a fragile one. With each step he realised that the weight in his arms was much less than the exhaustion of living that had seeped into his bones. His arms sagged with this thought. His foot stumbled on a rock, legs bowed and he fell on his knees, the pump shattering into uneven pieces, a few blue-green specks of rust and paint dotting the mud. Raghu pushed himself onto his back and looked at the tree tops, his arms splayed out, his back caved and fitting perfectly into the ground. The treetops seemed to sway now, trying to escape the canopy of sky, break out of a boundary that seemed to have no end. He tried to estimate how much longer he had to work at master’s house before he could buy his own small piece of land. He looked at the broken pieces of the pump and then at Suresh. The boy’s eyes, like most times were narrowed with disappointment. Every other feature was immovable, sculpted in stone.
Raghu picked himself up and rested against ‘John F Kennedy Road’ signboard. Suresh sat by the dry boulder near the pond.
“You know, Padma akka saw wolves here the other day”, Raghu’s voice wavered, his eyes heavy, knee caps burning from scraped skin.
Suresh only widened his eyes, his hands busy throwing pebbles into the pond.
“I heard howling too. Must have been dogs, though”, Raghu continued, pulling out a small bottle of pesticide from his shirt pocket.
“Poppa, what will we tell master about the pump?” Suresh asked. “I don’t know. We’ll tell him the wolves broke it.”
The boy’s lip drew out slightly in the shadow of a smile, before reining it back in. Raghu unscrewed the bottle, throwing the cap at Suresh’s feet. He quickly kicked it back to his father. They pushed the cap around with their feet before it rolled into the pond. Raghu then tilted the bottle into his mouth, taking one swift gulp of the liquid. His eyelids laden with the weight of broken blue pieces of water pump, slid lower and lower, an old moth eaten curtain, till his lashes touched his cheek, the sound of the plonk plonk plonk of pebbles lulling him to sleep.
* * *
Raghu’s death cemented the curse of the board in everyone’s mind, but what was worse for Suma was Preetika’s win in the running race at school. Suma was certain that she would have beaten her, had she been at the race. Her legs were so familiar with the terrain of the village, so in tune with mud tracks, hills and rocks that she could skip across them while carrying a crate of feni. She looked at Preetika stroking the golden surface of the trophy, her face turned up and smiling at everyone in the house, trying to pull off a look of equal parts joy and grace. Suma’s throat clogged with indignation, her sweaty palms repeatedly running up and down her skirt. She wondered if Preetika could deliver feni to the shack without spilling a drop like she did. Her furrowed brow eased slightly at the thought. “That girl, Sai. She’s so much taller Amma. Sudha miss thinks my legs were made for running”, Preetika was now erasing smudges on the cup from Savitri’s fingers with the edge of her skirt-little contained circles pressing lightly.
“I’m faster than you”. Suma couldn’t help herself. She was smaller, her head falling a few inches short of Preetika’s shoulder. “I can beat you for sure. I’ll show you right now”.
Suma was now looking at a spot on the wall over Preetika’s head. She had dropped the pot, waiting for water to gush out. Had she angered her aunt? Was she going to be locked up for the night in the cattle shed like the time her aunt caught her roasting stolen cashew?
“Okay we’ll race now”. Preetika’s voice was filled with amusement. “Whoever reaches Kennedy road first and touches the board wins”.
“Don’t you girls wander near that board in the dark! Get back home before evening”.
Suma’s aunt looked neither angry, nor condescending. She only sounded worried, lines around her mouth deepened to frame the lip. Suma had overheard her aunt talk about a new policy on radio announced by the prime minister that said that he who tills the land shall own it. This meant that they would lose a lot of land and labourers. This along with other happening in the village had shaken her, eyes always puffy with the weight of imminent misfortune; rosary beads now a permanent fixture in hand. “This is a dark age. Foolish laws and curses everywhere”, Suma heard her mutter her voice fading into the landscapes of feni-making and worry.
The two girls got into position, Suma mirroring Preetika’s runner stance. They took off at Preetika’s whispered ‘go’. Suma could only hear the thudding of their feet. She had often felt the wind beating against her legs when she ran. It was the kind of wind that made her feel like she was cracking through air, cutting it open to enter the city. She imagined the shiny gold of the trophy, a teacher whose name was Kennedy would give it to her and call her a natural and she would say ‘thank you’ without dragging out the first syllable. As she neared the board, she saw Preetika standing near it, bent at the hip, panting. She looked up and sneered at her. Suma did not stop; she ran past the board, past Preetika’s wavering smile and confused face, past the smell of pesticide. She ran past the sound of Preetika calling out to her until the only sound that followed her was the howling of wolves.
Rishitha Shetty lives in Bangalore, India. She has been previously published in Califragile, Spark, The Quail Bell Magazine, the Indian review and The Literary Yard. She is a member of Bangalore Writers’ Workshop.
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