Excerpt from “FINDING PIYA”
By Dipika Mukherjee
Iris Sen, the only child of cardiac surgeon, Dhiman Sen of Lima, Ohio, was an Indian princess used to getting what she wanted. Danesh, her fiancé, had tried to talk her into taking one of the fancy internal airlines to Delhi, but she had been adamant, too seduced by the childhood stories detailing her father’s train journeys as a medical student through the hinterlands of India. Flying around India was not enough for this American daughter returning to a homeland after ten years; she insisted on a train, not like the Orient Express but something more, like, y’know, real? She had grown up with stories of camaraderie on an overnight train, with homemade food in gleaming tiffin carriers and fizzy drinks at every stop. She, too, wanted to mingle with the eccentric humanity of this country — after all, what was the point of travelling in antiseptic air-conditioned first class cabins in a country seething with life?
What she didn’t say was that Snapchat this past week had been filled with pictures of that emo Rachel LePage backpacking through Europe, knocking at unfamiliar doors that said Zimmer Frie! to spend the night…all that adventure on a Eurail pass. How much more awesome, more photogenic, would an Indian train ride be?
Come on Dan, she had cajoled, if we wanted safe we should have stayed in Ohio! Onwards, my Lion-of-Punjab, don’t be such a wuss!
So Danesh had caved in (as he usually did), lured by the novelty and Iris’ enthusiasm. It was going to be a 24-hour train ride from Kolkata to Delhi, 26 tops, if the train was delayed. How bad could it get?
But Iris had woken up at 2:35 in the morning to the train juddering to a stop, then (as she understood very little Hindi and spoke the language not at all), a foghorn of sound. The train compartment was still dimly lit, the sagging curtains partially drawn around the compartment designed for six sleeping passengers. Less than twelve hours had passed since they had boarded this train in Kolkata, but this journey felt much longer.
A young man had sauntered by, lit up by the faint neon light in the corridor, and tossed a paper packet on her feet. Iris had reached out gingerly to read the message smeared in blue ink on the dirty paper: I only saw your feet…they are very beautiful. Don’t let them touch the ground or they will get soiled.
Chee! Iris sat up. The packet had once held something mildly oily, perhaps a jhalmuri that the buyer had to eat rapidly, swallowing the crispy rice puffs coated in mustard oil before the green chillies could attack the tongue. She held up the scrawl with her fingertips and wrinkled her nose; God only knows what germs were in the writer’s drool. She felt her nausea rise as she imagined dirty fingertips holding the packet at the exact same spot, the nails rimmed with dirt and shit…and she hurriedly dropped the packet.
This trip to India felt like being thrown into the back of a garbage truck — every surface was coated with something unclean – even the disinfecting wipes here felt contaminated. She had never enjoyed trekking in the great outdoors of America because of the bugs, and here she was, in a train in India, where no place was safe from disgusting diseases and scampering cockroaches. None of the Indian stories she had heard in Ohio had prepared her for this reality; clearly, the community had collectively misimagined their nostalgia for mother India. Her own memories (from a trip to India at the age of eleven) had unreal quality of old sepia photographs.
By the faded lettering on the sign she could make out they had stopped at Gaya Junction. Peering at her watch again she saw it was 2:39 in the morning and she craned her neck to see Danesh sleeping, his head angled to the front of the topmost sleeper so that their valuables (his backpack, her purse) could be wedged behind his 6 ft 2 frame, far away from casually theiving fingers. Iris sighed. Danesh, whose temper was usually on a short fuse anyway, had been relentlessly grumpy through this trip, making it clear that this was Iris’ bad idea. She was starting to think he could be right.
Through the windows of the sleeper compartment, she could see a group of Japanese tourists disembarking. The Indian guide was very solicitous with the geriatric tourists while gesturing imperiously at the coolies flocked around this large group. A young Japanese woman stood slightly apart from the group, finishing an entire bottle of mineral water in one long gulp.
Iris felt thirst tightening the length of her throat. She reached for her bottle of mineral water in the dark and shook it to confirm it was empty; she had finished it before she fell asleep. She could see the man selling tall Bisleri mineral water bottles not too far away on the platform.
Next to the water vendor was a doll-seller, his upper body covered in a threadbare singlet with two dark semicircles around the armpits. He had an array of colourful wooden dolls spread out in front of him on a pushcart: there were dolls with turbans and flared coats playing flutes and dholaks; there were men riding horses with colourful stirrups and dazzling sword-sheaths; there were dancers dancing with the left leg slightly on tiptoe, caught in mid-swirl in the disarray of flouncing skirts.
Iris was enchanted. She had onced owned a dancing doll just like that one, a beloved painted wooden thing with a crack in the veiled head, a gift from some unremembered relative in her childhood. She wanted some water as much as she wanted to hop off and buy a doll – it would be so cool to find the unblemished twin of the one in her closet in Ohio! – and so she edged forward in her seat and craned her head to look at Danesh again. He was clearly fast asleep, the pages of an India Today spilling from the upper berth where he gently snored. He barely stirred as she yanked the magazine from under his elbow, hoping to wake him up.
Should she get off the train alone? She had no idea how long they would stop here for it had been an erratic ride with starts and stops at the most unlikely places. At one point they had found themselves parked for 43 minutes in the most verdant field she had ever seen, amidst a glorious lushness speckled with small huts in the distance. Danesh had timed the delay on his watch, but in India, time lost its meaning. A train was late but it was possible to hop onto the earlier train just pulling in, even more delayed, and still reach somewhere on time, and if not, no one much cared anyway. It was such a mishmash of sounds in this country, mostly noise, that filled Iris with so much sensation that all other senses, including her intellect, seemed to shrink and hide, diminished.
She felt around under her seat with her feet for the kolhapuri chappals she had bought at Dakhinapan yesterday and felt the leftovers of somebody’s dinner. Gross. Fresh air. She needed fresh air and clean water. She could still see the doll seller in the distance, holding out two brightly painted things to a sleepy little girl who was backing away, pulled along by her father, and next to him were the tall bottles of mineral water in a row. She would get off the train, only for a little bit. She extracted the small flashlight which was a part of the Swiss-army knife kit that her parents had insisted she carry, and manouvering onto her tummy with her legs straddled on the short backrest, she tugged at the chappals wedged between the flowery covers of two bags belonging to the Marwari family that now slept on the other four tiers in this bay. She sneezed thrice as the dislodged dust from the suitcase covers hit her nostrils and felt her nausea rise as bile in her throat.
The Marwari grandmother on the lower bunk opposite Iris stirred and mumbled something in Hindi. Iris, growing increasingly nauseaous by the minute, was about to rush out when the old lady hauled her great girth out of the bunk, signalling to Iris to lend her a hand. As Iris grabbed at the walking stick leaning against the window and held it out, toe-let, said the old lady with emphasis, shi-shi. They moved past the sleeping bodies in the next three bays, partitioned by thick blue curtains with the jacquard print stained in brown.
The air outside was cool; the doors on both sides of the carriage were open. Iris gulped in the air as she guided the old lady into the minuscule toilet, quickly closing the door as the old lady raised her saree to her knees and squatted over the open hole in the floor. The vomit rose again to her throat as she quickly hopped onto the platform.
Immediately, the smell of hot puris fluffing into golden balls assaulted her nose. Even at this time of night the puri wallah on the platform had a small line of buyers, and he deftly spooned a liquidy potato curry into a leaf bowl as his helper covered it with two piping hot puris. The waiting buyer grasped the package and juggled it nimbly as the heat scorched his hands. The train conductor was filling up a red water bottle from a tap. The Japanese tourists were finally moving, after loading all their suitcases and backpacks into a two-wheeled luggagebarrow propelled by four coolies straining at the precarious balance.
Dipika Mukherjee is an author, poet, and sociolinguist. Her debut novel Thunder Demons (Gyaana, 2011) is based on the socio-political situation in Malaysia and was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Rubicon Press published her first poetry chapbook, The Palimpsest of Exile, in 2009. She teaches Sociolinguistics at Northwestern University. Finding Piya is her forthcoming novel.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.