August 8, 2014 Fiction



Carla Dow


It was her first time in India. She found everything about the country shocking. Everything was exactly as it seemed – and that was the worst about it. There was no room for interpretation, no space for thoughts or feelings. It just was.

Kate had woken at 5am that morning, the silence of the city alarming her. The car horns, barking dogs, constant chatter and general cacophony of noise that made Calcutta’s streets the cavalcade they were had been stilled by delicate birdsong. It wasn’t long before the city woke up and soon the tranquility was replaced with the already familiar noises of the intimacy of lives played out in the open.

She had travelled to many places before, to an eclectic jumble of beaches, cities and forests, but India was the first place Kate had felt like this about. It was the first place that she felt lost in, while at the same time knowing exactly where she was.

Kate had come to volunteer with a missionary charity. She didn’t live a religious life, but she trusted in the goodness of the place, she trusted in the foundations of the organization in this wholly strange city that had only one certainty: nothing was to be relied upon. The missionary was an oasis of calm in a sea of disarray. Or so it seemed to Kate.

She arrived at the motherhouse for morning mass, hiding away in the corner of the room, avoiding the smiles and warm glances of the sisters who would no doubt try to tempt her to pray with them.

“Come, come child, join us,” the feminine voices soothed. But she shook her head and took a step back. She was not of the faith, she had not come here for that.

The warmth and conversation of the sisters and her fellow volunteers filled the subsequent days. Kate was assigned to work at a home for destitute ill women. It was called Prem Dan – translated as ‘a gift of love’. Her mornings were filled with endless tubs of hand washing and so, up to her elbows in the cold water laced with a harsh soap, she scrubbed and sloshed at the anonymous soiled scraps of clothing. The chore was chased by sweeping the floors and then stripping and remaking narrow row upon narrow row of metal beds.

The severity of the place settled deep within her gut. This place that was named for giving love to the most desperate souls in society seemed, on the face of it, devoid of emotion. It was about pure survival, about food and shelter, about enduring not living; about sustaining existence, nothing more.

Next in the routine was serving Chai to the women. Reluctant at first, Kate was soon enveloped into the sequence of circulating and refilling the metal mugs of hot spiced tea, helping some to sip at the scalding liquid, allowing others to cling to her arm.

“Aunty, Aunty,” they called out as she passed by. She rested on her heels, propping the mug up against the lips of a small, twisted frame. Kate took in her surroundings. Nearly sixty women, all as anonymous as the next; sharing clothes from one day to the next, sleeping on metal beds tightly packed across a single bare room. They would not ask for more; they did not know anything more.

“Kate, are you okay?” One of the other volunteers caught the tear that betrayed her as it slid silently down her warm cheek.

“I’m fine, fine,” she muttered, swiping it angrily away. What did she have to cry about.

“Aunty,” a soft voice soothed, as a dry hand enveloped hers.

“Do you want some more Chai?” Kate did not expect an answer, most of the women did not speak English, but conversed unperturbed in their local dialect.

“What is your name baalika?” The woman was painfully thin, her knees and elbow joints rounded balls poking out from sunken lines.

“It’s Kate,” she replied.

The lady nodded but said no more, simply pointing to the comb in the pocket of Kate’s trousers.

“Do you want me to brush your hair?”

The tiniest of curves teased at the edges of her mouth, her cracked lips stretching the smallest distance towards her cheeks. Kate placed the comb into her hair, a wiry mass of black that reminded her of a bird’s nest.

“What is your name?” Kate asked.

“You call me Alaka. Where you from?” she asked.

“England,” Kate replied.

“I love England,” Alaka said.

Kate froze. She was used to this response from the Indian people, irrespective of the turbulent history the nations shared. But this was different; from this woman it seemed somehow more meaningful.

“I once had an English-gentleman husband,” Alaka whispered.

“You did?”

“Yes, before he left me for a Bollywood kulataa. This is why I am here, in this place Aunty. I was so ashamed that I burned myself. But even in that I failed.”

She threw her hands up and Kate saw for the first time the silken stretches of scarred skin that hung from Alaka’s arms. The burns had seared the skin on her joints so she was unable to move her elbows from her ribs. The tears flowed unchecked then.

It wasn’t until the next morning after the washing, the sweeping and the beds, that Kate sought out Alaka again. She felt compelled to apologise for her reaction, her emotions she had no right to force on this woman. There was no room for interpretation, thoughts or feelings here. Daily survival was enough to deal with and being in this place, as basic as it was, was better than living a street life without a man for protection. There was no alternative – she saw that now.

A blonde haired volunteer was gently stroking the comb through Alaka’s hair. Kate paused behind them.

“I was married to a Swedish doctor once, he loved me greatly. But it all broke when there was a fire in my shop. I sold saris, the materials caught fire. He rescued me from the flames.”

She lifted her hand as high as she could manage toward the volunteer to show her scars.

“But he died in the jaws of the fire.”

Kate’s heart thudded in confusion. Did Alaka have a second husband? She backed away and immersed herself in collecting the dirty cups.

The following day Kate heard another version of Alaka’s tale spin from her lips.

“Our baby was trapped in car, fire jumping out from engine, but he went in for her. They died, they both died. I lost him and her.”

Kate shook her head silently. In a city where death was so entangled in life, where suffering lay so close to joy, why would anyone create more pain by telling such stories? Kate kept her head down and passed Alaka by without a word.

“I was pulled from the flames of my husband’s funeral pyre, they dragged me out,” Alaka’s voice curled around Kate’s shoulders as she served Chai.

The volunteers got one tea break a day. Kate sipped her Chai in silence, a deep frown knitted across her forehead.

“Kate, is everything okay?” It was Astrid, one of the longest standing volunteers at the missionary.

“Yes, I’m just -” Kate paused and looked the German girl in the face. “No, I don’t get it, there’s a lady here who tells her story differently each day, a new story for each person she talks to, a new horror for each volunteer about how she was hurt, how she was burnt. Why would she make such things up?”

“You mean Alaka?” Astrid asked.

“Yes,” Kate paused. “It’s already so sad here, why would you make it worse with such stories?”

Astrid shook her head from side to side, the thin cotton of her headscarf swaying gently.

“Kate, don’t try to bring your Western values in here, it is not possible to compare or understand with them. Sometimes it’s safer to hide in fiction than to face the truth. Alaka’s reality is even sadder than the fiction; she has never lived a life outside of these walls, she has never had a husband nor a family – she has never known a life of happiness to have lost.”

“So what happened to her?”

“She was born here, to one of the Sisters.”

Kate sucked in her breath, her eyes wide. “To a Sister?”

“Yes, she kept her hidden for weeks, but as Alaka grew bigger her mother was afraid she would be found. She knew she couldn’t continue and decided to send her baby to God. She gave her a funeral pyre, but she hadn’t the heart to take her life first. Another of the sisters found her just in time.”

Goosebumps broke out across Kate’s skin despite the Calcutta heat.It was three days before she could return to Prem Dan. But when she did, Kate took the comb to Alaka’s tangled nest of hair and gently stroked away the new knots.

“I was married once you know Aunty,” Alaka told her, not recognising the anguish in Kate’s smile. “I was married to an Italian painter.”

“Tell me about the love between you Alaka, tell me about the happy days you had with him,” Kate whispered to her, “Not the sadness of the end, but the joy before that.”

The tiniest of curves teased at the edges of Alaka’s mouth, her cracked lips breaking into a smile that filled out her sunken cheeks. There was always room for interpretation; there was always space for creating new thoughts and feelings.


1 Comment

  1. Lynn Lipinski August 09, at 16:46

    I loved this piece - you captured what I love about fiction -- that you can be transported to other places and that you can change the ending. Bravo!


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