Wednesday 19 July 2017

Excerpts from The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Excerpts from The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota:

She’d been gone some half an hour and he could still feel her hand on his shoulder. Shaking his head, he put on his jacket and locked the door behind him.

It was busy, as she’d said it would be. Guests were filing out of the langar hall and heading up the stairs and into the darbar sahib. He joined the queue and sat at the back of the chamber, as far from the granth as was possible. She was kneeling at an angle to the palki, her harmonium in front of her, a tabla player on either side. Her head was bowed. Hands together in her lap. For now, all was silent save for the granthi’s quiet reading.

The akhand paat was to celebrate some girl’s upcoming marriage — three years ago, the granthi said, this girl’s parents had come into this very gurdwara and vowed to hold a service if their handicapped daughter was blessed with a husband. And how God had listened! A boy from India, no less! Tochi had heard of these marriages. A marriage of desperates. As the ardaas ended, he watched Narinder lift her fingers to the keyboard, lean towards the microphone and begin the opening raag.

Afterwards, a vague sense of relief ran through the room. It was all over. Some started to leave; others milled at the back of the hall, chatting. He could see Narinder packing the harmonium into its large leather case. He started towards her. She hadn’t noticed him yet; there’d been too many present for that. He was coming up past the canopy when he saw someone who seemed familiar. A very tall, very thin man with an oversized turban that tapered to a tight point. Instinctively, Tochi took a pace backwards. Better to assume trouble than wait to figure it out. Then he knew. It was the man from the shop. The one with the divorced daughter. Tochi made to walk behind him. The man spoke: ‘It’s you, is it? And who are you trying to deceive today?’

Tochi said nothing.
‘Any more families you’re trying to ruin?’
He turned round, started to walk away.
‘Liars always run,’ the man bellowed, so loud Tochi could feel the whole room turn and stare, conversations dwindling. ‘Remember his face, everyone. He’s a chamaar who pretends he isn’t so he can marry our daughters and get his passport. Isn’t that right?  Come on, which poor girl have you got your eye on today?’
He felt Narinder at his side, whispering that they should go. He shrugged her off, violently, and barged through the embarrassed crowd.

He wasn’t there when she got home. The lights were off and his room empty. She tried calling him but he didn’t pick up. She waited all day in the kitchen. In the evening, she moved upstairs.

It was gone midnight when she heard him enter. She sat up in her bed, listened. A tap was running, and now he seemed to be climbing to his room.

She knocked once, then opened the door. He was lying in the squashed centre of his mattress, an arm across his forehead. Even in the dark she could see that his eyes were open. She remained in the doorway.
‘Leave me alone.’
She didn’t move.
‘Don’t you ever ask me to go there again.’
She nodded. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Can I just ask you a question?’
‘Please,’ she said, but in a voice full of anguish, as if she knew what lay ahead. And yet still she had come. She knew what was going to happen to her and still she’d come.
He spoke evenly, as if detached from every word. ‘Where was God when they set me on fire?’
‘Please, Tochi.’
‘When they knifed my sister’s stomach open?’
‘When they cut off my fifteen-year-old brother’s balls?’
Her tears were falling. ‘I don’t know. I really don’t know.’
‘Where was your God when I couldn’t even tell my parents’
bodies apart?’

She carried herself down the stairs and into the kitchen. She tried the switch — she needed light, this darkness was plugging up her throat — but nothing happened. Water, then, and she gulped down a glass, breathing hard as she chucked the last inch down the sink. She turned round, tentatively, as though afraid of what awaited her. The room was still. The clock said it was a quarter past midnight. The blinds made a cage on the wall. She checked the silver tin in the cutlery drawer: empty. She fumbled about under the sink and found a box of candles, lit one straight from the hob and stood it on a red saucer in the middle of the table. She sat down. The candle cast the room in antique grace. She closed her eyes and bowed her head and brought her hands together on the plain wood of the table. She could feel her breath shaking inside her. I am the dust at your feet. I am the dust at your feet. She couldn’t hear Him. I am the dust at your feet. I am the dust at your feet. No. No Him, him, no one, nothing. Only black silence and dead space. Her hands were trembling. She tried again. She couldn’t. Birds flew past her shoulder and crashed through the wall. A river rushed out of her chest. The words dried away.

She raised her fingers to her head, to her turban. She lifted it off and put it on the table. She eased out the hairpin down by her neck and placed that on the table too. And then the pin above that, and then pin after pin and clip after clip and all the while her hair was coming down in ribbons, loosening, uncoiling, falling. She heard him on the stairs, and now he was holding aside the beads and standing in the doorway. She stared at him, her arms arranged over her chest as if she were naked. Candlelight on her long hair. He came forward and knelt beside her and put his head in her lap. He felt her hands lightly touch him and they both wept for all they had lost.

(Source: The Punch Magazine)

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