‘A girl, a princess no less, who once lived and ate out the heart of a squealing child every night’: a short story by Wellington writer Rijula Das. Photography by Peter Black.
Soon after my father left, mother and I moved to this hick town. We have a large corner room to ourselves in the Trainee Hostel. She says we’ll soon move into the employee housing where we can have a proper apartment with a kitchen and a drawing room. The long corridor with its unlived rooms and rows of shower cubicles at the end of the floor makes her nervous. ‘Just until they sort out the paperwork,’ she tells me over and over, ‘soon we’ll have a TV.’
I walk around the Employee Housing after school because there’s a set of rusty swings up there. By four it is enemy territory. The other children, The Gang, gather there in the afternoons and move towards me in a shoal. The swing is theirs; I can only steal it in noon-time when they’re not allowed to come out, imprisoned under the vigilant gaze of their stay-at-home mothers. They have a leader— a small and wiry, short-haired Pygmy leader who loathes me. I sometimes see her looking at me from the window when I’m on the swings. If I look up at her, she closes the curtains.
When I round the corner to the Trainee Hostel, Aziz Mama is already standing outside the entrance, looking at his watch. He’s promised me an ‘educational trip’ round the sticks after weeks of lengthy lectures on The Historical Wonders of Murshidabad. He’s promised me gold vases from ancient Persia, poison plates and stuffed crocodiles, mirrors that show only the faces of your enemies, and the grave of the heart-eating princess who was buried alive by her own father. Ma smirks at his stories, but Aziz Mama is proud of this small hick town with its mossy buildings and dead remnants of Mughal era pageantry.
He turns around and frowns at me. ‘You look like a monkey. Have you been rolling in the dirt? When is the last time you had a bath?’
I thump him on the back. ‘I am not a liar.’
‘You’re a lying monkey. But it’s okay. Where’s your mother?’
‘Isn’t she supposed to be back by now? I said we’re going to leave by four-thirty. Really, we should’ve gone in the morning, it’s going to close up soon,’ he frowns. ‘Wait here, I need to go back to the car.’
I follow him instead. Usually he comes on a bicycle—a dark green Atlas bike chipped in places, a dirty insignia blazoned at the helm, one copper man holding the whole world up, bending at the knees, defeated. When he’s in our room The Gang gathers around the Trainee Hostel, under our eaves, a few of them always trying to look through the window to the room inside. The half lace curtains flare in the wind of the ceiling fans, the white rod of tube light bounces off the blue washed walls. At such times I stand guard outside our walls. Protecting them, protecting my mother from their prying gaze. They always gather as silently as geckos. When they see me, they recede as one, except the Pygmy leader.
‘Your ma has a boyfriend,’ someone sniggers from the back.
‘Who is he?’ the Pygmy asks, twisting her mouth.
‘Mama?’ she mocks. ‘You mean your mother’s brother?’
I pick up a broken brick and say nothing.
‘Aziz is a Muslim name,’ she states. ‘You’re not Muslim.’
‘So he’s not your real uncle,’ the leader is unflinching, final in her declaration.
‘Boyfriend!’ someone shouts again.
I move towards them, blocking their view of the room. When they finally turn and leave I throw the bricks after them anyway.
Once we reach the car Aziz Mama manhandles a crate full of mangoes from the boot. ‘Can you close it?’
I jump on top of the boot and it closes with a thud. The metal is hot under my bum. The cardboard box in his hands sags under the weight of fruit as he carries it to our corner room. ‘I need to teach you how to store them properly,’ he says. ‘Come on and make yourself useful.’
‘What will you give me if I do?’
‘Stop bargaining, you imp.’
‘Last time you said you’d bring me an Ashrafi, remember? The same one your grandfather left you, an heirloom, you said.’ I put my hands on my hips.
‘Next time,’ he says and swats the flies buzzing around the stalks of the mangoes, where the gum has run dry and stained the fruit. ‘Besides, you’re not old enough for heirlooms. You wouldn’t know what they are.’
‘I know what an Ashrafi is. Pure silver Mughal coins, a rare thing these days, you said.’
‘Not so rare in these parts.’ Aziz Mama laughs. ‘Plenty of pauper princes rotting away in their derelict castles. Royal Mughal blood doesn’t alone keep you from starvation.’
We work together. I fetch the newspapers and lay them side by side under my mother’s bed like sheets, and Aziz Mama puts the mangoes on them one by one, covering them with leaves. I think of the Ashrafi, pure silver, hunchbacked with curly Arabic. It must be as heavy as the moon.
‘If you behave, you may even get it next time I visit. Now turn off the damned fan,’ he says. ‘It’s blowing the newspapers away.’
We sweat in the simmering heat, arranging fruit after fruit in a bed of leaves and old newspapers, our hands sticky from the mango gum. ‘The battle of Plassey was fought in a mango grove,’ Aziz Mama says. I turn one around, examining it’s blackened dented skin for signs of violence, for history or myth. He shakes his head. ‘An insignificant skirmish that handed India on a plate to the British, fought in a swamp full of mosquitos and fruit.’
‘What are you two up to?’ Ma’s standing in the doorway, smelling salty in the ripe heat of walking home. Her face slowly cooling from the afternoon heat, her frazzled hair sticking out around her face like a halo.
‘Who’s going to eat so much, Aziz da? You really shouldn’t have.’ Aziz Mama told me once that he was younger than my mother. But she calls him Aziz da, like dada, big brother.
‘It’s from my Desher Bari, you’ll like them.’
‘What’s Desher Bari?’ I ask.
‘Place in the country, ancestral home. It’s where you come from.’
‘I come from Calcutta.’
‘No, you just lived there. Your Desher Bari is where your father and grandfather come from.’
‘Bangladesh, Chittagong I think. But they came before the partition when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan,’ Ma supplies. ‘Maybe around ’42.’
‘There you are then, your Desher Bari is Chittagong.’
‘But I have never seen it.’
‘Still,’ he says.
* * *
It’s boiling hot inside the car. ‘We’ll go see Siraj’s Hazarduari palace, but before that, we’ll take a peek at his aunt’s estate.’ Aziz Mama starts the engine, the smell of burnt diesel spreads everywhere. ‘Do you know who Siraj ud-Daulah was?’
‘The last independent Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. He lost the battle of Plassey and boom, the British East India Company….’
‘He was betrayed,’ Aziz Mama interrupts Ma. ‘His general was in cahoots with the British.’
‘Sirajs real palace is under the Ganges,’ Ma looks at Aziz Mama.
‘What’s cahoots?’ I ask.
‘And these roads have not been repaired since,’ Ma laughs.
Aziz Mama pushes back his glasses on the bridge of his nose. I can see his frown in the rear-view mirror from my perch on the backseat. Murshidabad depresses my mother. When we take the train down to Calcutta, she points out the marble dome of the Victoria Memorial during taxi rides across town— ‘Look Rumi look, Victoria,’ she shrieks. As if that is something worth mentioning every time. Last time she carried a few Murshidabad silk saris with her when we visited. They were coarse, garish things. After my father left, she doesn’t want to visit anymore.
‘You really should see these places,’ Aziz Mama says. ‘You know how old some of these things are? Siraj was merely the last of them. This place was a great wealthy settlement long before the British came. But you Calcutta people know nothing.’
The roads are narrower, the closer we get to old town. Where we live, up in Berhampore, the roads are newer though Ma likes to joke about them. Here there are horse carriages everywhere. Not like the ones outside the Victoria Memorial that Ma so excitedly points out every time we pass, which have started looking more and more like chariots with tin foil embossing. Fake silver and red velvet seats, plumes on the horses’ heads, as though they’re auditioning for Mahabharat on TV. These are more like actual carriages people take to actual places. No fuss, no gilding, but the horses crap a lot. Blobs of sandy tan-coloured dung are all over the roads.
‘You’ll like it,’ Aziz Mama is telling Ma. One eye on the road, with the other he glances sideways from time to time. Ma is fiddling with the radio knob, humming. ‘Sometimes they play nice Rabindra sangeet at this time,’ she tells him.
* * *
A scrawny looking man in a white vest and blue checked lungi is walking towards us. ‘Take a guide, sir. I’ll tell you all about this place.’
‘Don’t need a guide, local.’ Aziz Mama is brusque, brushing him away.
‘I’m the official caretaker sir, government. See?’ He holds out a badge. ‘I get five rupees salary every month.’
‘Really, five?’, Ma says.
‘Come on, it’s all a trick.’
‘No, really? Why do you do this?’
‘This is the family tradition, Didi. We’ve done it for generations. My father was the caretaker before me, and my son,’ he pulls towards him a boy of eleven or twelve, ‘will do this after me.’ The boy is wearing rubber slippers and blue shorts. His hair is oiled but his feet are dirty. ‘We want to preserve this place,’ he adds.
‘It’s a ruin.’
‘Whatever’s left of it. These bricks are hundreds of years old, and they’re still standing.’
‘Amazing,’ Aziz Mama observes dryly. ‘But we don’t need a guide.’
‘No, let him,’ Ma whispers, looking at the caretaker’s son. ‘We’ll give him something. It’s fine.’ My mother has boundless sympathy for other people’s children.
The caretaker overtakes us, clears his throat and begins in a high-pitched nasal voice, ‘In front of you lies the estate of Begum Ghaseti, and the lake she constructed in the shape of the English alphabet U, a horseshoe all around her lands in the middle of which, on an island stood her palace, which has long since been destroyed. In this lake, pearls, or Moti was cultivated, hence the name Motijheel. or Pearl-lake. This lake, or rather, moat, was built to protect the Begum’s palace since cannon-balls could not fly past its range.’
A man and a woman are sitting side by side in front of the lake staring vacuously at a child running in circles. Not far from them a very old woman is shaking grains of rice from her cloth bag and carefully putting them one by one in a small bowl. Unlike the small family, she pays no attention to the guide, or us. The other two are intermittently glancing at us, soaking up the free history lesson with a bemused, relaxed expression. Aziz Mama is glaring at them from time to time for poaching on words he’s paying for.
‘Many believe that a secret underground tunnel connected the Begum’s palace to this antechamber here—the gumkhana—nobody knows what it was used for or what might still remain. Though popular belief through the ages has held that the Begum had salted away the vast majority of her fortune in diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, gold Mohurs and silver Ashrafis into this room for safekeeping, since the political situation was volatile and she feared for her life. It is also said that there’s a curse on this place. Nobody knows the truth….’
‘Or historical facts,’Aziz Mama mutters.
‘But after the British had taken over Murshidabad and Lord Warren Hastings resided in the Begum’s palace, a sahib once fired cannon at this antechamber. You can see where it has left a dent, and just there, standing beside his cannon in front of the mosque, he died vomiting blood. There were other attempts, in the name of archaeology, but none survived. Since then, it’s been left alone. Even if there’s a Nawab’s ransom in there, we’ll never know.’
‘And to think that you’ll have lived for generations only inches away from such wealth,’ Aziz Mama says.
‘Aziz da,’ Ma hisses at him.
‘So what’s your name then, Mian?’, he asks, conciliatory under Ma’s gaze.
‘So Basheer Mian, here’s something for your trouble. Send the boy to school.’
‘Oh he goes to school sahib, right here. The Begum had a school built on her estate for the children of the royals and the nobles, but now we have a sort of village cooperative, all our boys go there, our own madrasa.’
‘We have a small booklet here, sahib, we publish it ourselves, it’ll tell you about all the historical attractions of Murshidabad sir, it also has a road map, look.’
‘We don’t need a guidebook.’
Ma opens her purse and hands the guide a crisp ten rupee note and holds out her hand for a copy of the booklet. Aziz Mama doesn’t say anything but walks away towards the shanty tea shop where the car is parked. Ma follows him cautiously, a few steps behind.
I’m left with Basheer Mian’s boy sitting on the steps of the royal Begum’s mosque, slapping mosquitos from his knees and piling the flattened black bodies on top of one another.
‘So where’s the heart-eating princess buried?’
‘Who?’ He looks up. A smear of blood squashed from a fat mosquito runs across his shin, the black blot still sticking to his flaky skin.
‘The Kalija Begum. The one buried by her own father.’
He shakes his head. ‘She ate livers and she’s buried in Katra Masjid, not here.’ He looks around, ‘But you’ve got a car.’
“Liver? Are you sure? My uncle told me it was hearts she ate.’
He eyes another buzzing mosquito. ‘She had some rare disease, the Hakim prescribed fresh livers, preferably that of young children, but her father realised it was sinful of him to have people killed for her sake so he buried her alive and had a mosque built over both their graves so the prayers of the faithful would wash their sins away.’
‘How do you know? My uncle said she ate hearts. He knows a lot.’
‘She ate livers,’ he repeats stoically. ‘Her father was Murshid Quli Khan, the man after whom Murshidabad is named. Before that it was called Maksudabad. You can read all about it in that book,’ he points to the one held in my mother’s hand. ‘My father wrote it.’
They’re arguing in the distance. My mother is saying something and Aziz Mama is staring across her, his jaw hard. I don’t want to intrude, so I walk around them, keeping my distance.
‘I cannot put it off forever,’ he says to her.
‘And what about us?’ My mother glances towards me and falters. They start walking. ‘Get in the car,’ she yells, and hands me a green coconut with a white straw bobbing up and down. ‘We’re going to the Hazarduari.’
‘But I want to see the heart eater’s grave at Katra Masjid.’
‘We’ll do Hazarduari another day, it’s too late now.’ Aziz Mama starts the car, backing it away from the Begum’s cursed treasure. The loud engine spits heat and fills the car with the smell of burnt diesel.
‘Another day,’ my mother half-laughs. ‘Another day,’ she repeats in a whisper.
Aziz Mama turns the car into a narrow mud lane. We jostle through a thicket of banana trees, young palms, the fringed blades of coconuts. Clots of grey hang like grapes over the windshield, gathering, racing us. The bowed curtain of plantain leaves glow fluorescent against the pewter of rainclouds.
* * *
In the front seat they are sitting apart. Ma is looking out of the window on her side, the first spray of rain moving through her before it can reach me. She is humming, and Aziz Mama’s eyes are fixed on the road. He says something to her quietly. The radio still plays Tagore’s songs. The tune is whiny and meanders in the diesel air far too long.
‘When will you be back?’
Aziz Mama moves one hand from the gear stick and covers hers. ‘Things will be different when I’m back.’
‘Yes.’ I can only see half of my mother’s face as she turns away from him. ‘You’ll come back with a wife, a brand new bride, for a start.’
And now my mother is crying. I close my eyes so I don’t embarrass her. They do their talking when they think I’m sleeping. The car falls into ditches, splatters mud everywhere, honks unceremoniously at lost cows.
‘You knew,’ Aziz Mama says.
‘But things have changed.’
‘Not for them. They’re tiring of a long engagement, beginning to think I won’t come through.’
‘That didn’t stop you all these months.’ She stops, breathes. ‘You don’t have to,’ she says. ‘Unless of course that’s what you want.’
‘You knew.’ Aziz Mama’s eyes are still on the road but both his hands are back on the steering wheel, ‘It didn’t stop you either.’
* * *
We’re ambushed by the rain. Bombed, caught out as we open the heavy doors of the car. He says, ‘There it is, your heart eater’s grave.’
I suppose I couldn’t stop thinking about her, ever since Aziz Mama had first told me about her. A girl, a princess no less, who once lived and ate out the heart of a squealing child every night. I close my eyes and try very hard to imagine what it would be like. A red thing, a dark matted spilling thing like those discarded from the corpses of goats strung from their hooves in meat shops. What did they make of her, those people whose children were sacrificed, and what did she make of herself, this monster that lived in the castle? I wondered what stories they told of her. Now she lay in a dark underground crevice, abandoned by her father. I peer into her mausoleum through rusted iron bars, and see mice scampering in my shadow, skittering among cobwebs.
In the beginning I would take the Pygmy peace-offerings. I wanted to belong, to have other mothers allow their children to play with me, watch TV together. I stole small things, hid them in my clothes, and took it to the field by the swings. Plastic animals, erasers that smelled like rubber strawberries, bars of chocolate. The leader looked at them in disdain, but accepted them anyway. I came like a fool, supplicant, smiling, and took out treasures out of the folds of my flesh and was allowed to join the play.
Ma and Aziz Mama are standing on the flat red stones of Murshid Quli’s mosque, and under its dome a heart eating princess sleeps forever, their prayers washing away her sins. I can hardly see them through the rain. It comes down in a heavy grey curtain, smoking them, blurring them, washing them away. They’re standing before the Jafri window, framed in an archway, looking through the laced stone screen. My mother moves closer to him.
In the folktales my grandmother used to tell, often a queen would birth a monkey-child. The story changed with every telling. Sometimes it was a doll made of cream, sometimes an ape-child, mistaken, wrong. Ma would joke, ‘When you came out of me, covered in hair and wagging a tail, I said this is not what I wanted at all. A girl, a beautiful girl with the manners of the princess, please, not this monkey-child.’ I believed everything she said in those days, and she said, ‘I had to return you to Ma Shoshti the baby goddess, and she gave us a different girl, but hey look some of that monkey remained.’ In my grandmother’s stories sometimes the king would take another wife and send the queen to the wilderness, or he would behead the monkey and her mother. In my dreams their stories opened large maws and sucked the darkness of fairytales.
Inside the car my mother is leaning out of her window, her face turned to the road. The drapes and folds of her sari wilt in the breeze. The booklet flaps between them, its cheap paper limp and blotchy from the rain. I slept, feeling sick from hunger and the sweet water still whirling inside my throat.
When I wake it’s only me and Aziz Mama in the car. Only his headlights shine yellow in the dark compound. We watch my mother in silence out in the distance, walking like a palm in a thunderstorm, swaying towards the hostel. ‘She’s coming down with a fever,’ he says. ‘Try and call your grandmother, see if she can come. I’m getting late, I…’ He stops and turns around to look at me. ‘It’ll be okay, you’ll see.’
I nod. He reaches out to touch my arm. ‘Aziz Mama,’ I say. ‘You’ll really give me your grandfather’s Ashrafi?’
‘The day we go to Hazarduari, the palace with a thousand doors.’ He laughs, as if remembering something. ‘Only, nine hundred of them are fake.’
The sign above the Trainee Hostel has rusted through the tin, but I can just about see the highway from here. The line of dark grey on which the yellow lamplights drop. On nights I cannot sleep, I listen out for the trucks that go through the night. They have strange horns, long and piercing. It is a greeting. I listen out for them when I can’t sleep.
My mother moves like a sleepwalker through the long grass, humming now with insects. I run fast but I’m always behind, till we are both moving through the long dark corridors, the unnerving rows of empty rooms and bathroom cubicles towards a corner room stifling in the stench of fruit.
A crateful of mangoes breathe under my mother’s bed. The inaudible buzz of their heat-filled dreams, their sticky sweetness, spread their gummy tendrils through the mattress. Their resin covers her like a fly in amber. My mother looks like a folktale princess, one reeling from the shock of birthing a monkey-child, or a heart-eater, unable to stop. The salt on her skin burns in the fever. All of her is moving away, her forehead, her hands, the back of her neck, into sleep, into fever. I may never know her again, and such is the magic of nightmares.
I find the ripest of them and come outside. Its orange flesh has turned red, ferment-tangy in late June. It drips through my fingers. There will be fat, red ants swarming the drops in a few hours. It’s a full moon tonight. I ravage the mangoes one after another. A pool of ant food puddles under my dripping hands.
The moon gleams like an old silver coin, writing curled on its back.
Rijula Das’s debut novel ‘A Death in Sonagachhi’ will be published in December by Picador India. Next week’s short story is by Witi Ihimaera.