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I was a girl once but I slipped

Every day Kalu Bala’s wife cries beside the river that must not be crossed. We are told, she is waiting. Waiting for Kalu Bala to swim up to the bank, his hands overflowing with fish that he must have caught in the waters. A deep fog settles over the river, an unnatural milky white substance like the underbelly of a frog that cousin Posto once took to his school for science class. While walking home, he tells me things I already know.

Don’t look too hard into the fog. It knows you’re watching.

Don’t walk to the river. It pulls you down.

Don’t speak of Kalu Bala’s wife. She hears you talking.

Every day Kalu Bala’s wife cries beside the river that must not be crossed. The river runs like a motherless child, without discipline, awfully wild, gathering twigs, leaves, flowers, the broken bangles of women who have smashed them on these shores in mourning for their dead husbands a hundred years ago, cow carcass and the hyenas that the men hunted for sport and flung them into its waters from a great distance. It gathers everything and halts at places until a stone in time gets unstuck and then it runs again, separating two swaths of land from ever meeting.

Some say Kalu Bala swam the river for love of a land that he would never see again. Alas, Kalu Bala did not understand a lot of things that change a life! For example, a border. I admit, I did not understand that either. One hot summer, when I was seven years old, I had run down the red road that circled, like a vibrant necklace around the delicate neck of a bamboo forest, so tall and dense that they would take you before the river even laid eyes on you. Where the forest ended, a thin strip of land began. Dried fish bones and fish heads scattered about the land in a constellation. Bugs, beetles and earthworms wove their histories there, clutching to the skeletons that life left behind. It was on this land that boats were once kept, face down, basking in the sun.

But a border makes all the difference. It turns simple pleasures like walking endlessly or running with the wind and never stopping into acts of threat and defiance.

When I was seven years old and I stood on the red road, sweat clinging to my flesh, blowing cool air into my clothes because I had felt the sun coming down and lick my body with overzealous love, I wondered if I should walk up to the river and dip my feet in its cool waters. I could hear cries. I should have been afraid but I was a curious child. I had never come this close to the river before and now, coming this far, all I wanted to do was close the distance between the river and I. And the cries demanded I go to them. I must have stood there for a while deliberating. Soon, I heard the cries multiplied but this was different, there was desperation in these cries and they came from behind me. I looked back. There were people coming towards me. My mother running, her face all ugly and red from crying, Cousin Posto with his cricket bat swinging over his shoulder and Moina. Moina, my one true love with her hair in braids and red ribbons hanging in giant bows that brushed against the dimple on her cheek.

“Stop right there,” my mother yelled. I had only heard her scream once before, when our kitten chased a ball to the street and a mad dog had pounced upon her, his teeth sunk deep in her neck. Like a twig, we watched her body break, limp and hanging. I was five then and did not know of death as much as I do now.

“Never.” My mother panted, knees on her ground, her arms locking me in an embrace that I did not understand. “Never go to that river again. Never look at it. Never talk of it.”

“What happens when one goes to that river?” I asked cousin Posto as we walked back home.

“The river pulls you down,” he whispered.

“How does a river pull one down?” I asked again. Perhaps I should have been scared.

“You ask too many questions,” Cousin Posto scolded me.

It is true. I ask too many questions. I nodded with understanding.

“What lies beyond?” I asked, staying true to my nature.

“Something,” Cousin Posto said.

“A land like ours?” I asked.

“Not like ours,” he said.

“Does it have paddy fields and a sun and a moon and a sky above?”

“Maybe. Everything has a sun and a moon and a sky above.” Cousin Posto said. He warned me not to ask any more questions. There were already some on the tip of my tongue but stifled, they died an early death. When I was seven, I did not understand borders. I only understood where one does not go.

The river. And all that lies beyond it.

Now I am thirteen and I know that borders are like the thin lines of raised soil in rice paddy fields, ledges that cut up a land in strips, to hold the water in, so it may never run down freely as it wishes to do.

I don’t walk the red road that leads to the river these days. I take other roads to school and cousin Posto walks with me. We tell each other things that we already know.

—Buro Baba is actually the thief who has been stealing the sugar cubes from the kitchen.

—The days are getting hotter and hotter.

—There is a cricket match in the evening.

—I hate wearing frocks

—If you jump a little on the moon, you will end up in the sky. This is because the Moon’s surface gravity is 1/6th of that of the Earth.

The last one is a fact and should not be disputed and yet Moina clings to the lies her father tells her. Moina does not go to school. She believes that her mother has a little cottage on the moon. There, she sits at a spinning wheel, cuts the threads dispassionately and watches over her daughter. It is something she will do for all eternity. I tell her that no being can make cottages on the moon. Moina thinks I am cruel. We frequently argue over this. I tell her that there are things we will never know if we don’t question.

She asks me if I love her. She says she will never know if she never asks. We see each other during the cricket matches in the evenings. We stare up at the velvety sky and hold each others’ hands. We try to make sense of the world around us, the quiet of the sky, the noise of the living and the faint cries of Kalu Bala’s wife that the balmy night air carries to us. We can’t decide if she is living like us or like the sky itself, unchanging, unmoving, just there.

“How old do you think she is?” Moina asks.

“Cousin Posto says that his father and his father before him heard her cries too,” I say.

“So, she is hundreds of years old,” Moina says.

“For how many years will she keep crying?” I ask.

“You will have to ask her,” Moina teases.

She has been teasing me these last few days.

“You know that we are not supposed to go near that river or that woman,” I tell her. I am slightly irritated. Maybe she can tell.

“Then, you will never know. Perhaps, there are things that even you don’t want to know,” she says slyly.

I will give in. I am weak. I look at her face. The moon’s light is enough to illuminate her face. The light seems to graze her cheek, leaving the dimple untouched. There, the shadows have gathered, like a deep, dark pool, like the fog that hangs in the air over the river. Perhaps, if I dipped my feet in those waters, I would be pulled in. I feel her hands in mine. Perhaps, I already have.

“If I go down to the river and ask her, will you stop believing in the lies that your father tells you?” I ask her.

“Maybe,” she says but the shadows on her face darken.

“Some lies are good too, you know,” she tells me.

I doubt that. I look at her face. She is unreadable. She could have been a word thrown in the wind, but at that moment perhaps she was one lone leaf hanging on the branch, strong, resilient. She watches me as I walk away. I want to watch her too, standing at the bend in the road but something has held her back. Maybe the road has risen up in borders that I cannot see, borders she would not cross.

I make my lonely way round the bamboo forest. I walk past the gleaming eyes of hyenas that peer through the thicket of shoots. They will not follow. They too, are mindful of borders. Perhaps, they fear me more than I fear them. Too many men have hunted them for sport. Their brothers have been dragged down by the river too, settled as sediments in some place or the other. They know these stories well. I question my actions as I walk. I have made a hasty deal, one that I put no thought into. Cousin Posto says that I am too stubborn for my own good and cousin Posto is never wrong. He says that the world is not made for girls like us, too curious, too stubborn. He says that the world is too small and we, too slippery.

“What happens to girls like us?” I had asked him once.

“One never really knows. Whatever happens to people who cannot be contained.”

As I walk towards the river, my feet grow light. I move like water, stumbling on rocks. There are no roots that can contain me. I hear the cries clearly now. I am standing on that barren patch of land. The cries are like an anchor. It steadily pulls me to her. I hear the river. It speaks in different tongues, in murmurs, and sputters, and stammers. It fumes, it rages. It cries. The ever present fog is blinding. It holds sight hostage. I cannot look away and yet I cannot see. I am far too curious to stand at a moment in time. I am too slippery. I run like the river. I run towards the river. The fog shrouds me. It holds me.

Cries emanate from the river.

Like a mass of black threads, they rise from the river, one and two and others. Like giant creepers wild in their growth, they hold my feet to the ground. Cousin Posto had shown me pictures of weaves of neurons in the brain. Massive branches of a tree that know no end, I think. And all of these branches have voices of their own, leaves like tongues that speak of pain, of hunger, of separation, and of love that makes us feel small. He had told me that a whole sky could fit in a brain. There were as many neurons as constellations; and standing there by the riverside, I imagined these threads spreading through a black sky, through all of eternity, threading in and out the rings of Saturn, covering Jupiter, and beyond this galaxy and the next, until the whole of universe was mired in threads that spoke of stories that our human ears could not bear.

“They sound like cries. Stop it,” I shout, clutching my head.

Heavy is the head that knows. A voice speaks. It starts with a hum and then the song fills my head. For a while, that is all I hear. Heavy is the head that knows. I mumble. Heavy is the head that knows. I speak, my voice clear. Heavy is the head that knows. I sing.

Like some invasive species, the words have infiltrated my very being, they scramble and run in my bloodstream, flinging away all thoughts and actions they encounter. I am them. They are me. Then, it passes away or maybe, I have passed over. I don’t know yet. Unbearable silence is what comes next. Silence and the acute sense of my loneliness.

The weight of knowledge has been taken off me in an instant and I feel myself wither in its absence. So many stories had lived and flowed inside me in a matter of moments that I could have sworn, I was one and many.

No, no, no. Give it back. I wail. Who do I direct my plea to? Who had spoken to me? Was it the river? Was it the fog? Was it the convergence of all the voices that perhaps formed one single consciousness? I must have stood there for days, wandering the river bank, each time coming back to that same spot. The fog held my body hostage, the river, my mind. Consciousness slips me and I lie crumpled beside the river. It comes back and I feel grateful. More. Give me more. Then, when I feel hopeless I see something moving.

I spot one lonely figure. Kalu Bala’s wife. I see her turning her head, a mass of shadows. She could have been a face of dimples belting out incessant cries like tunes. Kalu Bala’s wife walks towards me. I should have been afraid.

She comes close, too close. I can see her teeth. I wonder if it is a clever thing to be afraid, sometimes. Only the very foolish think themselves very brave. That is what Buro baba used to say before he turned into a fly on the wall and started stealing sugar cubes discreetly.

She looks at my face as I try to look for hers. In that great mass of shadows, there remains traces of what her face might have looked like. The more I look, the lesser I see what lies in front of me. Here, by the river side, the moon light gets dispersed when it falls on the fog bank. Some fog particles diffract the light and a faint rainbow forms. I can see her face now, in my thoughts, in ways I could never explain. Perhaps, I have run my fingers through her hair. Perhaps, I have whispered into her ear. Maybe kissed her cheek? Rubbed my cheek against hers . . . It is all a blur but it is knowledge all the same. I step closer. The distance is no more. She rests her head on my chest. I should have been surprised but this too seems like a distant memory.

Moments seem to pass as we stand there. I am smiling.

“Why do you cry?” I ask.

She lifts up her head.

“Where is Kalu Bala?” she asks. It is as if a wind had screamed or whispered. Or both.

“They say he swam the river and it dragged him down.”

She listens but does not speak.

We are both silent now. What answers am I looking for?

“They say he hungered to see a land he would never see again,” I speak.

She still does not answer. Her cries have stopped. They have become sobs now. From time to time, she lifts up her head and asks me, “Where is Kalu Bala?” I tell her something in return. Little stories of my life back home so that when she lifts up her head to look at me, she does not see shadows on my face as I have slowly ceased to see shadows on hers.

I tell her that I don’t understand it. I tell her that I am not missing home. I tell her that I mean to stay here longer.

She asks me, “Where is Kalu Bala?”

I tell her something more.

When morning comes to the river bank, she lets me go. She walks by the river, her face searching its waters and yet she never crosses the river, or swims it, or dips her feet into its waters. As we walk along, I remember things that are not mine to remember. I am sifting through hundreds of memories. The river deposits memories, carries them downstream, settles them at one place or another. Once again, I am myself and more. Stories live inside me. I wonder if she is one and another too. But can one be both?

It grows hotter in the day. The fog traps the heat and keeps it close to the ground.

I have no roots. I have come this far. I am slippery. I keep telling myself, again and again.

“Where is Kalu Bala?” she asks me again.

“I am too slippery,” I tell her.

I am too greedy. Lately, I have been feeling that half a life is no life at all and I have only been living half stories. The voices and the memories flow in and out of me. They never stay. If one story begins, it slips away before it ends. And I need to know. I need more. The river is freedom. The river is the collector of all lives. I dip my feet in its waters. Kalu Bala’s wife shrieks. She holds onto my arms. She wails. She will not let me go. I will not let myself stop.

I am too curious. I am too slippery.

So, I do what I do best.

I slip.

She screams.

The waters run over me. They fill my lungs. They fill my mouth. I can’t speak. The pain of drowning is not what freedom should taste like. The river is carrying me down.

I wonder if I will find my way back up.

I wonder, without roots, what becomes of someone?

I float. I wake. Kalu Bala’s wife cries.

But I have drank the waters of thousands of lives, of memories that are like stars in the faraway constellation. I am not afraid. I am only curious to a fault.

And this is a waking dream.

Once, there was a Kalu Bala who lived on a small plot of land that his father had farmed before him. It was the land of plenty. Not a dried river in sight. Kalu Bala was a farmer’s son and he farmed by day but that was not all that he wanted to do. By night, Kalu Bala took his boat out to the river and his fishing line with him. For hours, he would wait until he would feel the familiar tug. This was the life that he knew. Once, when he was out on the dark waters, he saw a fire burning in the distance. With days, the fire grew bigger. It swallowed one house after another and Kalu Bala watched in horror, from his boat, as one night, the fire swallowed his house too.

He stopped near the shore to stare into the flames but the flames stared back at him. The fire was hatred. It drove Kalu Bala mad. The green land that he once knew burned with hatred before his eyes and it left behind soot and mangled flesh. People killed people and floated the bodies down the river. For days and days, Kalu Bala wept on his boat. He could feel the burden of the river. It was as if he was the river himself. He pitied the river for it had to carry the bodies down. He pitied his green country for it was no more green. He pitied all the men who were driven mad and all the men who ceased to be. Kalu Bala rowed his boat for as long as he could and then one summer day, Kalu Bala gave up. He thought he would wake up dead. Perhaps he would have ashes for eyes. But the river felt his pain. It was almost as if the river was he. The river carried him to the other side. This land was not so green. When Kalu Bala woke up, a woman was staring at him. She smiled shyly when he looked at her face.

He asked for her name. She giggled in return. Kalu Bala thought she looked like the sun. She thought he looked like a man with death on his mind. So she took him to her house and taught him to live. He taught her things too. Little things like making a flute, or wooden boxes. And Kalu Bala thought that this was all there was to life.

Alas, Kalu Bala did not understand lots of things that make a life! For example, a border. When Kalu Bala’s hair started to go grey, he started pulling them out. Perhaps in doing so, he had pulled out memories too. Night after night, Kalu Bala dreamed of a green land that lay just beyond the sparkling river. The fishermen never went far. But they were not as curious as Kalu Bala. Nor were they like the river. So, when his wife slept, Kalu Bala crept out of his house. He had forgotten the fires. He had forgotten the madness. Life had erased all the marks of death and full of life, Kalu Bala rowed his boat down the river in search of his little home on a little plot of land that his father had farmed before him.

On the other side, he spotted men covered in green, from head to toe. Their boats did not need rowing. They looked into glasses and they waved at him. Kalu Bala rowed his boat faster. He wondered if they were here for him. He saw them coming closer. They were speaking to him. Kalu Bala was certain that he was being welcomed even though he did not understand any word they said. One moment Kalu Bala was full of life. The next moment, the border patrol had shot him after repeated warnings. They checked his body for identification. There was none. They decided he was a ‘nobody.’ They brought his body to land. Kalu Bala died in a hole in the ground, far away from the river. And the river wept. And so did Kalu Bala’s wife when she woke up the next day.

I am the river. I have no roots. I know answers but I cannot speak. I have come far.

I flow gently. I mutter and murmur. I rage and I fume.

I carry bodies. I carry stories. I am memory, a place beyond death.

I am the river. I am the collector of lives.

A woman walks up and down. Her face is a mass of shadows. I recognise her.

She searches my waters and yet never dips her feet. She is afraid of me.

“Where is Kalu Bala?” she asks.

I want to pull her down. For once, I want to give back the answers that I have collected. Alas, I cannot speak in her tongue!

So I mutter and murmur. On rocks, I beat my watery tongues. On pebbles, I jump and skip. I try to tell her that Kalu Bala is at peace. He died peacefully with a fish in his hand. I remember, ages ago a girl had looked at me with sad eyes and told me that some lies are good indeed. I very much doubt that. She did not understand death. I want to tell her that death is just another border to cross but I cannot speak. So, I bubble up and ramble and I swirl and sing in the place beyond life and death, in the place where no borders can contain me.

I sing of what I know.

—A cousin who was never wrong.

—A buro baba who turned into a fly.

—A man who rowed my waters in search of his home.

—A border makes all the difference. It turns simple pleasures like walking endlessly or running with the wind and never stopping into acts of threat and defiance.

I tell myself, I am a river and I have no roots.

I was a hyena once but I was hunted.

I was a fish once but a fisherwoman kissed me.

I was a girl once but I slipped.

About the Author

Rupsa Dey believes in the power of language and cats, and is only allergic to the latter. She believes that if the boundaries of language need to break in order to accommodate the human experience, then she must direct herself to that purpose. She never says ‘No’ to tea and if given a chance, would like to believe in a world without borders.