a short story:
My name is Shira. It means “song.” I am fourteen years old. If you had taken my picture five years ago, you would have seen a different face, a face with eyes dead as a fish and full of sadness and shame and despair. It has taken all these years to find this smile.
Do you know Carla Carlson? I think that you don’t, but she was the angel who saved me, brought me back to life from the garbage streets of Calcutta, City of Joy, where I was a prize – a filthy prize. I, who was born and raised on the bed of my mother who sustained us on her back, and at the age of nine, followed.
The smell of cardamom makes me gag. Uncle Chaudhuri always had cardamom seeds in his pockets and cracked them between his coated teeth. He would spread his dry lips into a smile and the odor of cardamom stewing in his mouth breathed out on me. When he came close, I’d shut my eyes and turn my head away. He would grab my chin and jerk my face toward him. “What’s the matter, little one? I am your dost, your chacha.” He was neither my friend nor my uncle.
I was born and grew up in the Sonagachi section of North Calcutta. It is one of many districts of prostitution in a complicated city. We children didn’t know that when we were little. We knew that we had very few fathers who mostly sat and smoked, many mothers who told us how to behave and many uncles who came and went. My sister and I learned that when our mother closed the door, or pulled the curtain in our little apartment, we were not to knock and not to go in. One of our other mothers standing around outside might notice us and hit us with a broom to go away. If we were in our room, we knew to leave even if we were sick. Sometimes a special uncle would bring my mother a real silk scarf or some special sweet. She was the prettiest of all the women. That meant that our door would not be open for many hours and sometime I would go somewhere else to sleep.
My sister Suchitra is fifteen. My mother says she was blessed because her daughter was born with a crocked leg and walks with a big limp. My mother said that she doesn’t need to go on the line because no one will pick her. But Suchitra has worked very hard from very early in the morning to very late at night cleaning and bringing the mothers food. My mother had two other children. One died when he was just three months old. I only remember that he cried a lot. I used to be a twin. Her name was Panchhi, but my father took her away when he left and we never saw or heard from either of them again. I was four. My Mother never reported it. “What would the Police do” she said, “waste their time to chase a Sonagachi father who took his own daughter?” Suchitra said he sold her but I can’t believe that. It may be true. We did not talk of Panchhi because it made us too sad.
We live on Beadon Street in a real two room apartment where my Mother can cook. That is also the space where the three of us sleep on the same pallet. The front room has a wide bed with many beautiful pillows that we call the sofa, but it’s a bed. That is where my Mother works. We have such a fine place because of Chacha Chaudhuri. He is the very special Uncle that comes whenever he wants and stays for as long as he likes. I smell his cardamom before he arrives and I try to leave. But since the age of nine, he doesn’t come only for my Mother. He comes for me.
The first time he came for me was in August, two weeks after my ninth birthday and Indian Independence Day. “I will take the child to see the Flag raising ceremony and the parade,” he said. My Mother blessed him for caring for me, but her eyes shone fierce with anger.
“Come, little one. We are going on an adventure and we will even take the trolley.” I had only been on a trolley once when my Mother took Suchitra and me to the Temple to pray for Panchhi. Though the winds were howling with monsoon force, I thought, “This might truly be an adventure.”
Central Avenue was jammed with all kinds of vehicles and its buildings hung drenched flags from almost every window. The trolley made many stops as more and more people crushed on trying to escape a driving rain that had begun. Most of them got off after a forty minute ride, but we continued on for twenty minutes more and got off in a dingy section of town. “I’m tired,” he said, as he led me into the entry way of a narrow building. We went in. He spoke to a man in a crumpled shirt, sitting behind a streaked glass window who gave him a key attached to a block of wood. Without a word, he took my hand and led me up two flights of stairs. We entered a dim room where faded curtains drooped off of a small window.
In a matter-of-fact voice, he said, “Okay, little one, get out of your wet clothes. We’re going to take a rest.”
“But I’m not tired at all,” I protested. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to the bed.
“I said take off your clothes.” His voice was violent. Trembling, I did.
He pushed me down onto the dirty sheet that half covered a thin mattress. I curled on my side away from him, like a dead ant but I heard the sound of his zipper. Within seconds he’d thrown himself against my side and tried to pull my arms open. I fought as well as I could and cried out, “Mama, No, Please, Mama” at the top of my lungs.
“Shut up you little kutta,” he said, and slapped my face hard with the hand that wore a heavy ring. I was stunned into silent whimpers. He began breathing heavily and pinching the nipples on my flat chest. He pushed his hand down between my legs and pinched me there. He grabbed my hair and threw his heavy leg over me and began rubbing himself up and down the side of my body. He groaned from a deep place in his throat and rubbed harder and harder and then I was sprayed with something warm and wet and he rolled off of me in a sort of collapse. I was afraid to look at him – but I did – for an instant. His eyes were shut and he didn’t move. As carefully as I could, I moved off of the bed and used a corner of the sheet to clean myself. Without a sound I put my clothes back on and curled up against the wall next to the door. Uncle Chaud slept for what felt like hours. He awoke, dressed and saying no more than, “Let’s go” walked out of the room but not before he put a handful of cardamom seeds into his mouth.
We rode in silence back to Sonagachi. I kept my eyes down and followed him to our apartment. The monsoon winds had picked up and I had difficulty keeping up but he didn’t turn around. At the apartment door, he greeted my Mother with, “I’ll be back” and I rushed past him into my Mother’s arms, sobbing. She closed the door and knelt in front of me, taking both of my hands into hers. Her voice was steady. “Listen my daughter. Today you have begun to work. We all have to work,” and she stood up and walked into the other room. I could hear her crying over my own sobs.
Uncle Chaud came for me regularly. He always took me to the same place. Little was ever spoken. Whatever reluctance I had was remedied with a quick slap to the face. I learned to cry silently and never looked my Mother or Suchitra in the face when we returned. They didn’t look at me either.
My body began showing changes over the next two years. My chest wasn’t as flat as it had been and I was beginning to grow woman hair. My Mother noted these changes with alarm and so did Uncle Chaud.
By age eleven and a half, I got my first bleed. My Mother slapped me and pulled me into her arms and cried. “You must tell no one of this,” she pleaded, but Uncle Chaud knew something was different among us.
One day he arrived earlier than usual dressed in his dingy white linen suit where the jacket strained to close around his belly. The lapels were oily grey from his habit of standing with his hands wrapped around them. He carried a bouquet of street flowers tied with bright green and yellow ribbons. “For you, little lady,” he said and handed them to me. “Today is such a beautiful day and we are going to celebrate with a walk and a lunch in the Central Park”
My Mother’s face was ashen and feebly she protested, “But Uncle, Shira has so many chores she hasn’t attended to.”
“This is not a day for chores,” Uncle Chaud responded in a syrupy voice. “It is a day to celebrate.”
“Wait, then,” my Mother countered. She hurried into the other room and brought out her white silk shawl that she’d only wear to the Temple. “Such a day deserves a special scarf.” I could see tears welling up in her eyes. She kissed me on my forehead like a prayer and we left her standing mute in the doorway.
The day was lovely in its innocence but I didn’t trust it. The trolley let us off in the center of town and we walked at the edge of the Central Park through the crowds of midday workers coming out for lunch. Uncle stopped at a booth and bought us masala chai and paratha. We ate as we walked till we came to a narrow side street. Half way down the block was a small hotel that looked more presentable than the Paragon where I had spent too many fearful hours.
“Come, little one,” he said, as he walked us up to a desk. “Room for Dr. Chaudhuri,” he requested in a voice pumped up with importance. The room clerk looked at his book and turned to give Uncle a key.
“Take the lift to the fourth floor. It’s down the hall on the right.”
“Come, my dear,” Uncle said as he popped several cardamom seeds into his mouth.
My stomach was tight as we entered room 413. It was simple and neat. There was a small sink in the back corner, as well as a rod with a towel on it. A thin tan cotton spread covered the bed and two pillows.
Uncle Chaud moved toward me. In a quiet voice he said, “Take off your clothes,” and sat on the bed to watch every move of my fingers. He beckoned to me. “I have been waiting too long for this day,” he hissed. It was useless to resist and I came to him. Never did I expect such pain and violence. I screamed. He slapped me once and then again. It was clear to me. I had gone on the line.
That is where Carla Clarkson found me two years later, on the line on Beadon Street in front of the apartments, standing among the mothers and sisters of Sonagachi. Why she sought me out is Buddha’s blessing.
This was not the first time I’d seen the dark green jeep with the design on its side. It passed on our street many times before but today it stopped quickly. A young woman stepped out on the passenger side. I thought her to be twenty-four years old but age is not important for women in Sonagachi. She was taller than I am and thin too. Her skin was almost as brown as mine, but she was not Indian. She had short blond-white hair that curled on the sides of her face from sweat, and she did not kohl her eyes. She wore British walking shorts with a loose batik blouse and sandals. It was clear that she was coming directly toward me, and I moved back a little as she came closer. Her smile was soft. “Are you Shira,” she asked in clear Hindi.
“How did you know my name?” I backed away further. She stayed still.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My name is Carla, Carla Clarkson and I have been looking for you.”
“Why? What do you want?”
“I don’t mean to alarm you. I have a story to tell you that may please you. Could we walk a little and talk? I’ll pay you for your time.”
I had no reason to respond to her, but I moved in her direction just the same.
“Can we go to the Bazaar and perhaps get some tea?”
I shrugged. “You aren’t Indian. How do you speak Hindi?
As we walked along, she began:
My Mother died when I was born, and when I was two my father moved us here from the United States to work in his father’s business. The CC on the Jeep is his company, Clarkson Cottons. One of his salesmen, his name was Asan, had a sister who came to take care of me. She was just twenty, but she was a wonderful mother to me and my father fell in love with her and they got married four years later.
While she spoke, she kept turning over a cardboard that she had in her hand when she first approached me. She made me nervous. We reached the Bazaar and moved to a tea stall that had a canopy and small tables, and sat down. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Please be patient a bit longer,” and she continued.
We were all very content. The business was thriving. Eight years passed. Asan became a top salesman and a trusted employee. My father chose to promote him, and told him he was needed in Dubai where the company was expanding. We thought he would be happy but he was distressed. A week later, he arrived at our house with a little girl clinging to his neck. He went directly to my Mother. “Kanti,” he said with tears in his eyes. He looked wild, and although I was the same age as you are now, I was frightened. “Kanti, this is my little girl. If I must go to Dubai, you must take care of her. I cannot leave her.” There were many more serious conversations among the adults and in the end the little girl remained and Asan left.
Carla stopped, reached across the table to take my hand and placed the cardboard in it. I was completely bewildered. I turned it over. It was a picture of me. “How did you get my picture?” I demanded.
“This is not a photograph of you, Shira. It is Panchhi, your sister…and mine.”
I was still as a stone. I could feel nothing but my heart that started to beat so hard it felt like it had come loose inside of me, banging against my bones like a trapped wild thing. I wrapped my arms against my chest, and words came boiling out of my mouth. I was shouting, “Where is she – How did you find me – Why did you come – Did she send you – Is she sick – Is she alive – Where is my father – What do you want from me?”
I shivered and sank and let go of the picture I’d been holding. I rocked back and forth in silent tears. Finally, with a voice as small as a child’s, I whispered, “Why didn’t he take me?”
Carla moved around the table to comfort me but I could not tolerate her touch. I sprang away and began to run as fast as I could, through the Bazaar, to Beadon Street, to my place on the line. I heard her call, “Wait, wait,” but I turned only long enough to scream back, “She’s not your sister.”
I could not meet my Mother’s eyes when I returned, but we had not been looking very closely since I began to work. What could I tell her that would not break her heart?
I did not see the green jeep for three more days. When it pulled up close to the line that Friday morning, it was Carla who was driving. “Get in,” she said, in an even voice. “We need to talk.”
I hated her for all she had told me. What good did any of that do for me except make me more sad and more ashamed. I wanted to be the safe sister, her sister. I climbed into the Jeep and without exchanging a word; we drove through the city into the green of the countryside.
Finally I asked, “Where are you taking me?” We bumped off the road and stopped near a small stream. Carla brought out a rug and a bottle with two cups and a box with oil stains on the side. I could smell samosas.
“Sit down, Shira, please. I must tell you all.”
Fear grabbed me but I sat. As she poured cold lassi into the cups, she continued. “Please forgive me for shocking you as I did last Tuesday. I really never thought I’d find you and when I did, well, let’s say I wasn’t prepared – or maybe there wasn’t really a way to tell you.”
“But how did you find me and why? Did my father send you?”
“I’m sure you’ve been thinking about things but I need to tell you everything. First, Panchhi is well. We haven’t told her I found you or even that I’ve been looking for you these past few months. She’s never forgotten you and she’s talked about you since she came to Alipore. When your father left her, I must confess that I was a little jealous, but I grew out of that a long time ago and I feel she’s like a sister. Now there are a lot more important things we have to think about.”
“I have nothing to say. You have Panchhi. What is there to think about?”
“Well, your father…”
“My father – what about my father?” I could feel my heart beating hard in my chest again.
“I’ve got good things to tell you Shira, and not good things. Your father proved to be an excellent manager and what was to be a year’s posting became two and then three. His intention, always, was to come back for you. He couldn’t take you both when he left because he couldn’t ask my mother to care for more than one child. He’s had half of his salary given to her for your sister’s care and spoke with Panchhi on the phone almost every month. The business he built for us in Dubai was strong, but somehow he never felt he had enough money to take care of you both. Four months ago he was showing a customer our shipping area and there was a terrible accident.”
“And?” I knew what she would or would not say next.
“…I’m so sorry, Shira.”
Why should I feel anything for the father who left me to grow up in Sonagachi, but I did. I sat back on the edge of the rug and cried out loud – not only for him, but for the sadness in my life, for my mother, for my sisters and for the life that was to come. Carla moved closer to me and I let her. She put her arm around me and I wet her shoulder with real tears.
“Please, Shira. This isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. We have known where you and your family live. Asan had been very clear in his description to my mother over the years, telling her of his plans to get you, but we had no authority to come before now, that….,” her voice trailed off. She took a breath. “My parents and I want you to be with us, with Panchhi. We want to adopt you both so we can be together as a real family.”
“I have a family,” I sputtered as I jerked away. My face felt hot. I wanted to run but there was nowhere I could go. “I know,” Carla said in a soft voice. “I know. No one wants to take you from your mother, Shira, but your father has always wanted you to be safe.” We sat for a long time. The sun had baked us but we still sat.
Any life I had in my voice had gone. “Nothing has changed. My father has been dead to me for ten years and my sister is still lost. My Mother and I work to take care of the three of us and that is all there is. Can we go back now? I will be missed.” I stood and Carla followed.
“This isn’t over yet, Shira,” she said when I stepped out of the jeep after our silent drive. “I’ll see you in a few more days and I promise I will have good news.”
True to her word, although I did not want to see her ever again, she drove through the crowded street to the place not far from where I stand. The top canvas was on and there were two other people in the car. It frightened me. Was I going to be taken away? I moved half behind a friend. Carla came straight up to me.
“I’ve got something very special for you,” she said. Those words never brought me pleasure. She turned and waved to the Jeep. A tall white man came out. I don’t know how old he was but he wasn’t young because I could see grey hair on the sides of his head. He was smiling and turned back to the Jeep to put his hand in to someone. A girl came out. I stopped breathing. It could only be Panchhi. The world stopped for one instance and we ran into each other’s arms. Panchhi-Shira, Bird-Song. We were whole.
I cannot tell you how it has all come to be. We have been bathed in tears of joy. Mr. Clarkson is very kind. “Please call me Chacha like Panchhi does,” he asked but I will never call another man uncle. He is my dost and he is satisfied to be called friend.
On the day Mr. Clarkson and Carla left Panchhi and me on the street, they went to find my mother. My heart was full of fear. What could they say to her – We have taken one daughter from you and have come to take another? They were there so long that I wanted to go to the apartment but Panchhi said she couldn’t bear to see it so we went to sit in the car. Although we had shared our Mother’s body, we were shy with each other to share the seat of a Jeep. She knew I was on the line but said nothing about it. I knew nothing about her good fortune and she was cautious not to boast. So we spoke about our father.
I could not read the face of Carla and her father when they returned. They were serious. Carla addressed me, “Your mother is okay and we’ll come back very soon to continue talking but for now, you’re not to say a word to anyone about this visit.”
“Say goodbye, girls,” Mr. Clarkson instructed. Panchhi and I hugged as if we were never going to see each other again and I climbed out of the Jeep.
All eyes were on me from the first time that the CC Jeep stopped for me. There was no need to say anything to anyone because everyone else was talking about it for days and making up their own stories. I kept my head down as I wove my way up and around the walkways to our apartment. My Mother’s face was dark. “Did you talk to anyone about them?” Her words were hushed. “No, Mata.” She drew me to her. “As Panchhi is safe, so must you be safe too, my daughter.”
What could this mean? – That I would go away and leave her too. “No, Mata. I will never leave you.” She softened, “We will find a way.”
Two days later, the Clarksons returned without Panchhi. When they found me they rushed me to the apartment. “Come quickly, Shira. Your mother will need your help.” What kind of help? I was too frightened to ask.
When we opened the door, the room was in confusion. My Mother was kneeling over a large bundle of something wrapped in our bed covering. Suchitra was putting our pots into one of our water buckets. Spices and spoons were sticking out of another bucket. My Mother looked up at me quickly and said, “Gather all your things and tie them up.” I couldn’t seem to understand. “We’re leaving.” That was all she said. Carla and her father took things out and loaded them into a much bigger car they’d brought, then came back for more. Suchitra and I followed with as much as we could carry. My Mother came last with what remained of our life on Beadon Street.
The five of us pushed ourselves in among all our belongings and Mr. Clarkson drove away with a roar. I started to talk but my Mother gave me her ‘not a word’ look and I reached for Suchitra’s hand. She squeezed it all the way to Alipore Street.
The entrance to the Clarkson house was long, and at the end was a beautiful building that looked to have many rooms. I could see Panchhi standing in front with a woman in a sari. Carla turned to my Mother and said, “There is your sister-in-law, Kanti.” My Mother could only see her lost child.
Carla moved near us when the tears and hugging stopped a little, and took a picture. I will hold this photograph of the four of us together in my heart long after the cardboard fades.
When I think about that week, from the first day I saw Carla Clarkson, my almost sister, to the day we left Sonagachi forever, I find it hard to believe, but yet it was so simple: My Aunt Kanti, who is my real aunt and Dost Carl, have opened up a new life to us. My Mother and Suchitra have a small house on the Clarkson’s land with a nice room for Panchhi and me to share. Sometimes we both sleep in the big house; sometimes she sleeps there and I stay with my Mother. It doesn’t matter. Aunt Kanti has my Mother cook with her and they talk about what they will prepare. We all eat together and sometimes not. She also taught my Mother how to embroider and they will often sit with each other. I don’t know what my Mother feels in her heart but she tries to show her gratitude and do whatever the Clarksons will let her; she’s insisted on washing the laundry for us all. We three girls get a bus everyday that takes us to a fine school, and Aunt Kanti and Carla took Suchitra and me shopping for Western clothes. They still feel a little odd, but Dost Carl says I look like a million bucks and I think that is a good thing to look like.
One night, early in our move, Suchitra called me to her room. “Do you know why Mata agreed for us to leave? She said that if you were to go, Chacha Chaudhuri would take me.” That is the life we left, and that is why now I can smile.
© 2012 Barbara Jean Heller
About the author:
Barbara Jean Heller has been a dance-movement therapist for nearly four decades, and has begun writing short stories over the past few years. Regarding this piece, “Shira,” Ms. Heller says: “We’re a unique compilation of our experiences, and often we see things or hear things that register deep inside – reappearing when we least expect it. “Shira” has come from such a place, triggered from a photograph of an anonymous young Indian girl. Her eyes told her story.”
Ms. Heller resides in New York, and has recently returned from a Safari tour of east Africa.