The hateful skirt comes slithering down Tarun’s slender eight-year-old frame, the hemline falling just short of his ankles. By now, Tarun recognizes it—the feel of the fabric that wraps itself around his damp legs, the sequins that claw at his bare skin. Ma tackles his hair next. The hair hasn’t been cut since they came to Doraha; it’s a tangled mess, reaching below his shoulders. The comb tears at his scalp every time it makes an abortive journey down its knotted length. But no amount of squirming can deter Ma. His ears fill with the clatter of bangles racing up and down her forearms as she goes about her task with uncompromising determination.
At last, she is done, and he is released from her grip. He plops down on the bed, jacking the skirt up to his thighs and trying to restore with both hands the chaos the comb has just dispelled from his hair. That’s as far as his defiance can go.
Ma’s needles engage in an intense duel, dragging the unwitting wool into traps of knit and purl. He knows better than to try anything smart when Ma’s in this state. There is no option but to wait for Baba to return.
“Don’t make a girl out of my son,” Baba had said, that first time when he had found Tarun and brought him back in hysterical sobs.
In response, there had only been the clattering of utensils, the hiss of rotis plumping up with hot air over the fire, the smell of burnt flour.
“He’s the only one left to us now,” Baba had tried again. “Let him be.”
When Ma had spoken at last, it had been in a voice so alien that it had taken Tarun a moment to realize it belonged to her. “Those demons will come,” she had said. “I know they will. I can feel it in my bones. In my blood. They will come here as well.”
Baba doesn’t argue with Ma any more. He simply waits till she has calmed down sufficiently or has fallen asleep, and then quietly helps Tarun back into his own clothes. Baba is the one Tarun trusts now. Back at home, it had always been Ma.
“This is home now,” says Baba, whenever Tarun asks about going back, about Dadaji, about Varun.
Home was the laughter in Ma’s voice. It was Dadaji’s gentle teasing, Varun’s guffaws, the sounds and smells of cooking, the wind coming in to play its music with the doors and windows. And their village …Tarun has spent a lifetime building maps of their village in his mind. Maps that are populated by the mouth-watering aroma of frying samosas at the corner tea-stall, the temple bells marking morning and evening prayers, the thudding of clothes against rocks by the river, the bell of the doodhwala’s cycle, the sounds of the various village animals and the accompanying, often identical, sounds of their minders, the trademark greetings of friends and acquaintances … Try as he might, he can’t superimpose the unfamiliar smells, sounds and shapes of Doraha on those old maps. Even more difficult is trying to navigate the contours of their new life here in this house.
This house in Doraha is a maze of unrelenting silence—of unanswered questions, unspoken thoughts. Ma makes him wear girls’ clothes. Her very voice translates into a stranger’s face. Baba rarely speaks to him.
Dadaji isn’t here to tell him stories about the adventures of young boys and their grandfathers. The kids here keep him out of their games and laugh at him, and he has no elder brother to come to his defense.
“Varun is safe somewhere with Dadaji,” Baba had kept saying, those first few days and weeks after they came to Doraha. “Dadaji will bring him, I know he will. They will be here any day now.”
He doesn’t talk about Dadaji and Varun any more. Neither does Ma.
“This is home now,” is all Baba will say.
Tarun jumps up from the bed. Ma’s arms are around him in an instant.
Outside, a loud, authoritative voice says, “OUT OF YOUR HOUSES!”
Ma is surprisingly calm. “Come on, we have to go outside.”
Outside in these clothes!
“No, I can’t…” The panic rises in his own voice as Ma drags him to the door. “Ma! No, I won’t come!”
Outside, there is chaos. Shouts. Cries.
The loud voice again. “Women to the left, men to the right!”
People brush past him in all directions. Then, everything turns very quiet and they are standing still. Tarun gropes desperately for handholds of sound.
A dry cough. The muffled sounds of their collective breathing.
They are all around him! Everybody is staring at him! He can feel their eyes. Any moment now, the jeering will begin…
Any moment now…
The first time Ma had dressed him up this way, he had marched unsuspectingly down the street, knowing only that he had new clothes on. Then, the kids had him surrounded. Limbs everywhere. Pushing, jostling, kicking.
Tarun! Looking very pretty today!
Have you forgotten your dolls?
Hey! Who’s the groom?
He had fought his way free and run. And for an eternity, the laughter had followed…
But today, there is only silence. Has he, by some miracle, become invisible?
“Search the houses. Make sure they are empty.”
He can hear heavy footsteps. Glass breaking. Furniture being upturned in nearby houses. Ma’s hand tightens slightly on his shoulders. Instinctively, he knows that she has spotted Baba. Baba must be with the men. If only he can get to Baba…
The village head is saying something. “…never taken sides in Doraha. There are no informers here.”
Informer. Tarun has heard the word somewhere before. It brings to mind the vague image of a wild animal—something dangerous, something that has to be hunted down. Like the leopard that had slipped into their village last year and made off with an infant.
The stranger again. “Take all the men and boys to the fields.”
There are muffled cries, sobs. Then, the sound of footsteps shuffling away into the night.
Ma’s hand is trembling. Tarun squeezes it protectively, not resentful anymore. The clothes can wait; nobody has noticed him in all this confusion. The men are going to hunt down the intruder. Baba will soon be back with news of the chase.
Dull, rhythmic bursts come from the direction of the fields. Several women are wailing around him. Tarun’s not scared.
He belongs with the men.
Judges’ comments: A powerful tale told through a simple vignette, this story achieves that rare accomplishment in storytelling, to be both big and small at the same time.
Vrinda Baliga lives in Hyderabad, India. She enjoys writing short fiction and poetry.