AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Today, we are honored to present “Youth” by Swati Pandey, the first of two related stories that we will publish over the next two issues. “Youth” and “Ram” (pronounced Rahm — which you’ll find here next week), both concern Ram, a once and future husband, math teacher, and father, at opposite ends of his life.
While each of these stories is powerful by its own merits, their juxtaposition makes that power even more deeply felt. Here, in “Youth,” Ram is on his way, by carriage, from one Indian village to another to meet his bride for the first time. As he travels, he anticipates his first sexual experience while reflecting on, and saying goodbye to, his childhood. But what happens along the road does more to usher him into manhood than what will happen in his marital bed. His marriage is arranged, the carriage borrowed. It’s a transactional pattern, in which the traded is indistinguishable from the trader, that will define his future. As this knowledge creeps in, something else — call it youth — seeps out.
Pandey manages to depict an entire trajectory of sexuality and many of the attendant misunderstandings, humiliations, and violations.
These stories also mark Ram’s first and final experiences with women. From the memories of a teasing childhood friend in “Youth,” to the brief friendship in “Ram,” Pandey manages to depict an entire trajectory of sexuality and many of the attendant misunderstandings, humiliations, and violations. In “Ram,” we see a man who has lost what he was only beginning to lose in “Youth”; a man who has become bitter, misguided, and uncompassionate. And yet, even if we don’t forgive him, because we know where he has come from — physically, psychologically, and emotionally — we understand. Swati Pandey’s achievement makes clear that her talents extend beyond her ability to craft sentences, to curiosity that gives way to understanding; her empathy is hard earned.
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
“Youth” by Swati Pandey
My betrothed, a girl I had not yet met, lived in an even smaller village than mine, and to reach it, my father, three brothers, and several uncles and male cousins took a series of horses on a twenty-five-kilometer wedding processional. At the end of the line, crowded into a grand carriage, I sat with my father and my father’s friend, our village’s landowner, the man who loaned us all the horses to pull all the carts and who did not tire of reminding us of it. In other parts of the world, even in other places in India, there were automobiles. It was 1941, after all. But in my low corner of the world, for my village wedding to a village girl, we bragged about horse carriages. He had them draped in garish fabrics and the flower garlands the women of our family strung together in a mess of unpatterned color. The horses had their finery, even, and I was the least decorated of all, in the plain cottons of a Brahmin wedding.
“How could I not give my horses to see our town’s favorite son Ram be married, hmm?” the landowner said. “And soon we will have a new favorite daughter.”
I was nobody’s favorite son and he knew it. The favorite son was my eldest brother, leading our procession on a horse, simply to show he did not mind twenty-five kilometers on a horse, that he was a civil servant — a geologist at that, nothing special — with the spirit of an officer. Of course, not one of us was rushing to sign up for the army, no matter how much the British exhorted us. I was even unqualified for the civil service, having failed the exam. I knew exactly what I was: a too-thin layabout who could be no better and go only slightly further than my father, a mostly illiterate tenant farmer.
But at least I had the horses. My brothers did not have so many for their marriages — though their celebrations were far more joyful than mine would be. One grows exhausted by the time it is the fourth son’s turn. The landowner did not own so many horses, and my father was not so entangled with him, until recently. There was no need for entanglement then. Survival was less of a concern before the war.
My father was silent in the rear-facing seat. My marriage was a task he needed to complete, like those of my brothers before me. Two were married to the nearest girls in the village and still lived in our growing household with their children. One, my eldest brother, went to a city woman. He could manage such a creature, it was decided, because of his stature. Were my mother still alive, there would at least be some joy to these weddings, possibly laughter, or song, I imagined. Our mother had supposedly been a terrible but loud singer. She died before I could form my own memories of her. Without her to produce happiness, my father whittled my marriage down to what it was, a profitable transaction.
I was the youngest in the family, though, everyone agreed, far too old to not be married. The delay in my marriage was never explained to me. I was handsome enough, but we knew no one suitable in our town, so the search expanded further, to some business partner of the landowner’s in some different village. I was not told the bride price, but I was certain it was piddling. I was not shown a photograph nor was I offered the opportunity to meet her, to make sure her voice was not so shrill or that she did not have some obvious physical deformity.
“What is our soon-to-be favorite daughter’s name again?” the landlord asked.
I did not remember and my father did not answer. I had been told she was beautiful and serious, with thick hair down to her thighs, a perfect swaying walk and good teeth. And maybe we would have strong children and a steady life. Even if she was just a girl, she could make me more than I was. What else was there to a woman? I did not know.
Everything I learned of women came from one girl, Mala, thin as the malnourished trees that ringed our village and just as rough-skinned, with hair that refused to stay braided. She was two years older but I sat next to her in school starting in the third form, aged eight, because I was ahead of my peers in numbers and she was behind, always distracted by a pet lizard she carried in her little fist. Its tail and head lolled on either side of her closed hand like disobedient, demonic extra fingers. She liked to drop the poor pet on the heads of students she hated, including me, until the day I decided not to react. This required a constant vigilance — every moment I anticipated the lizard suddenly falling on my head and clamoring with its sticky scaled feet down my neck. When it finally happened, after days of meditatively accepting the fact of possible lizards on my head, I did nothing, not even the slightest squirm as it acquainted itself with my hair, sent scared nerves running electrically from my scalp to my spine. I did not move a millimeter until, finally, I turned to look at Mala. Her mouth was a perfect o. I had awed her. This was what it meant to impress a woman, I learned. This warm feeling, the heat from her mouth, the way it stopped the shivers along my spine, was what I had always wanted.
She was the daughter of people new to our village. While our family had lived there for all knowable time, hers arrived in the last generation, landless, as they still were, performing metalwork and other such crafts to support themselves. Transient people were suspect, and every adult, my father, my teacher, my older brothers, hated my new friendship with Mala, which outlasted the lizard’s little life, prematurely ended by the foot of another classmate. Mala spit on him, a great thick wad, in retaliation, and suffered a beating from our teacher for it.
She adopted more dangerous pleasures after that, like racing locomotives along the tracks. The trains ran often then, before the war required the cars to be shipped elsewhere and the tracks to be interrupted. I ran with her a few times, holding her hand, but I could never last as long, my legs crumbling, my heart threatening to jump. This did not impress her. I practiced running without her but I could never match her speed. She was ten and not very smart but she was right about this: the train, or at least its movement, was the most interesting thing in our small lives.
I had to exorcise her from my thoughts. If there was one thing the village tried to teach us, it was that we could not change the course of lives. We could make all the minuscule decisions of daily living, of which way to walk where, of how to react to a lizard on our heads, of whether to run on train tracks, but we had no say in the bigger story. Only men like the landowner did.
So here I was, following along with the story of my life in a swaying, slow horse carriage that I could easily outrun if I had the nerve to simply step off it. But there was a woman at the other end, my future wife. Even if she was a village girl, even if we would just come back to my village and live as people had always lived, our lives would be ours.
The trees grew more luxurious by the river, with branches draped thickly in leaves and vines, and the soil darkened. We were in the final stretch of our journey. I focused on my betrothed’s imagined walk and her mouth and her hair, thick long dark hair, the path it traveled from her thin neck between her shoulder blades past her waist and then down. Sitting next to the landlord on that stiff wooden carriage seat, I had fits of hot, shameful excitement.
The river came at exactly twenty kilometers. Her waters were higher than usual from recent rain and the villagers had clambered up the dirt to the flood plain. Their colony was a few hundred people, a few cows, and several dozen children. A place we simply had to pass, a thing engineered specifically to allow passage, the bridge, was their entire world. And the river was where people came, if they could not afford to travel to the Ganges, to leave their dead. The river people lived in limbo. It was easy to imagine that nothing ever happened to them, no movement, no fate beyond serving as part of this landscape, as limited as the trees and the grass.
As we approached the bridge, the boys came to sell us roasted nuts in newspaper cones and charred ears of corn doused in bitter lemon juice and black salt. I stared directly at the horse ahead of me, as if the boys’ stony black eyes weren’t drilling through my skull, their plaintive voices ringing in my ears. They took fake tolls at this bridge, I had heard, simply because they could, and my brother was no doubt negotiating with them by mentioning the names of his various bosses and what previously unenforced rules about bridges could come crashing down on this poor encampment if they did not let us pass. As if a geologist knows anything about bridges.
“We still have much time to arrive before the wedding hour,” my father said for no reason. His age-spotted head beaded with sweat and he patted it. In my mother’s absence he had grown quiet and thin, but he was still strong, like rope. He had not taken another wife, leaving the village to speculate that he was impotent. As if to contradict the rumors, to give his wifeless existence a structure, he clutched at whatever thin prestige there was to be had by a man like him in circumstances like ours.
“Of course, of course,” the landowner said, buying peanuts from a boy who looked like he had just learned to walk. “When the wedding hour is appointed by priest, when it is declared the only auspicious hour for this marriage, then it will happen. It must happen, and so it will happen.”
“But what is this delay?” my father said. “By now the toll must be paid. Only my eldest would care so much about a toll. Just pay the poor bastards.”
“They barely know what money is. To them it is just something that shines,” the landowner said. “Not something with which to build themselves up. Make something of themselves. Do you hear, Ram? You understand money, yes? There are ways to make money that don’t involve dirt.”
My father said, “And haven’t we had it better than when you were a child?”
“Yes, father,” I said.
When we were younger my father worked the ground. It was a miserable life. We worked all the daylight hours and we paid taxes to the landowner for everything. We paid a tax to work our own land, which legally was not ours. Nothing smoothed the good years and the bad years, there was no way to prepare for or mitigate the moods of the sun, the rain, the dirt, the landowner suddenly feeling poor and asking for more money. They say it was worse before I was born, when people like us also paid taxes to use the well, the pond, the open field where families held funerals. Eventually the law changed, and we had free use of the well, the field and the pond. But the land — that was the landowner’s, even though he simply sat on it.
I supposed I could not blame my father for accepting the landlord’s offer of a job. We’d had minor luxuries from the landowner, and minor resentments from our neighbors, ever since. There was the wedding procession, but before that, there were batteries and bulbs; good shoes that made walking and even running feel like gliding; and blankets, as many blankets as our family could use in a winter. The landowner, who was growing old and lazy, was grateful to have the still relatively lively body of my father to send around town. A wifeless man made a good tax collector — the kindest description of my father’s work — because he lacked sympathy and had no vulnerable places.
From the side of the carriage, standing perilously close to my leg, a leprous woman lowed at us. The landowner passed money to my father, who tossed coins toward her grasping deformed hands. She touched the coins to her head and bowed repeatedly. I felt for her a version of what I felt for my father: murderous pity mixed with disgust. She was once a full woman, maybe even a beautiful one.
“River people,” the landowner said, “are as close as our kind can be to the animals.”
“Sister,” my father said to her. “Tell us, what is the delay ahead? We are humble people, like you, please let us pass. We have given you what we have.”
“There are no humble people in horse carriages,” she said.
My father persisted. “It is borrowed, sister. You see, we have a wedding. My youngest son must be married before sunset. This is what the priest has said.”
She stared at me with her one good eye and smiled.
“So thin, but handsome,” she said. “For more coins, I give blessings. I have great power for blessings, sir. I myself am diseased but no one who touches me sees the marks. I am a healer. No one here at the river marries without my blessing, and all who come to leave their dead come to me as well. Whether you are alive or dead, I bless you. For such a good blessing, it costs very little.”
“We don’t need healing or blessings,” I said. “Please, madam, just tell us the toll.”
“Madam,” she said. “I am not your madam.”
“It just means sister, with more respect,” I said. I could not convince her. She slumped away, squawking about the awful city people in the awful carriage and cursing my wedding and my life. I thought of the curses we learned in school, the ones that started all the great stories. The gods cursed to be born on earth, in their same lot, again and again. Valmiki’s curse on the hunter to live restlessly for all his lives, to never be at rest.
My father and the landowner laughed and I tried to join in, but it was me she was cursing, not them.
My brother finally told us the problem. He trotted back to our spot in the line. In his white silks and black boots, he was the only one among us who looked like he belonged in our fine carriage. Even the leper crawled back to look at him, and the children briefly stopped trying to sell things, such was his air of authority. He was angry, to judge from his posture, even more rigid than usual, and he spoke without dismounting.
“The bridge is out,” he said. “We can either cross the bridge on foot, or cross the river with the horses and the carts at a shallow point here. But the carts and horses cannot go on the bridge.”
“How can a bridge go out?” I said. I imagined it blinking off, like electricity. I had never had to cross a bridge before, and now perhaps I never would.
“You’re an idiot,” my brother said. “Bridges aren’t like the ground. They give.”
“What happened?” the landowner said.
“The last rainfall took out pieces of it,” my brother said. “It won’t carry as much weight. Just pedestrians. No wedding processions.”
“There must be a way,” my father said.
“Leave the carriage here,” my brother said. “It’s come far enough. You’ve had your fun playing rich man, Ram.”
“We cannot leave the carriage,” my father said.
“I don’t care to play rich,” I said. “It wasn’t my idea.”
“But you are enjoying it now, yes?” my father said. I felt my face redden.
“What fun is it to go to your bride without a proper carriage?” the landowner said. “Don’t you want to impress her? And make everyone envy her? Women like this sort of thing. Come, come, let us find a way.”
“She won’t care one way or the other,” my brother said. “She doesn’t know better.”
“Have you met her?” I said. “How would you know?”
“I don’t need to meet her,” he said. “She’s a villager.”
“Quiet, both of you,” my father said.
“I don’t need a carriage. I can walk,” I said. It was a lie of course. The distance was not too far, but I did not want to hobble to my bride. But I was ashamed at how quickly I’d grown accustomed to the horses, the pomp, and how much I wanted her — this woman I did not know and whose duty it was to stay with me no matter my wealth or poverty — to see it.
“In your silk slippers?” my brother said.
“Barefoot,” I said.
“A regular ascetic,” he said. “Why not skip marriage entirely and go to live at a temple in the woods? I can tell you, marriage is simple hardship. Another job after your first job, and rather than salary, you have to pay for it.”
“It will be different for me,” I said. My brother’s wife was like a well-groomed cat. I wanted a real woman, a hard worker, a good mother, and surely my betrothed would be such. Village girls are that way, as far as I knew. Though Mala was nothing like that. She stayed the same, just as dangerous, as unkempt, even after puberty, when they began to plan her wedding.
The landowner stepped impatiently from the carriage, letting the reigns slack at last, the horses ease. My brother leaned against the carriage and pinched snuff into his mouth, yielding leadership to the landowner, whose ample stomach tumbled over his too-tight waistband when he stood.
“Get me the toll-master,” he said. His collar strained against his bulging neck, and he seemed reluctant to step away from the carriage, as if it were a shield against the river people. For a moment I wondered if they would slit us all open for the offense of being better born than they. It had happened once, they say, before I or any of my brothers were alive; farmers rose against the landlord. They gutted him like a fish, burned down his house, stole those luxuries. But a new landowner was simply installed, a new estate built, where my father now went for tea while everyone else was still working.
“Where is the toll-master?” he said again, and finally a spiny man in oversized, dusty trousers and Oxford shirt stepped forward. The landowner pulled him aside. When he wished, the landowner could act the everyday man, slapping backs and making simple jokes. He could hand money away without the chattering anxiety my father always betrayed when paying for anything. Perhaps one had to be born with money to treat it so carelessly. My father could drink all the tea in all the rich men’s houses in the world, but he would still think about the cost of every cup, and how it was to not have them. The weight of wool blankets and the comfort of good shoes were their own sort of bondage.
The landowner and toll-master were both smiling at me, even leering. They were undoubtedly discussing what awaited me across the bridge and why I was in such a hurry. Why couldn’t I remember my bride’s name? I could only recall Mala, that plain name of hers. We tried, once, to do what grown men and women do, before she was sent to be married, so I knew what it was they were whispering. She had laid on her back calmly behind an old dead tree trunk on our land, pulling off her underwear and hiking up her skirt. At first I couldn’t bring myself to look anywhere but her face. Then I glanced down at the appallingly pink gap between her legs. I knew what I was supposed to do, my brothers had told me the mechanics of it and how and where to put my hands and legs and the other limb. But all I could do was thrust toward her without entering her. I kept repeating the motion, thumping aimlessly, limp as that lizard in her little hand.
My face flushed and I looked away from the ogling landlord.
“Father?” I said.
“What is her name?”
“My bride’s,” I said.
“You are not to utter it until you are married. It is best you do not know,” he said. He was superstitious when it was convenient, but otherwise, my father was devoutly pragmatic.
“But you told me once,” I said.
“And I won’t tell you again,” he said.
“A first initial?” I was desperate to have something of hers on my mind and my mouth.
“No. Now, I must relieve myself.”
I watched him walk to a nearby tree that leaned perilously toward the river, snaking limply over the land, an indifferent barrier. How long had people lived here, I wondered, and how long had they scattered their dead here? How many particles of ash were floating just under that murk, still as death itself? Centuries of dead, centuries of mourning, centuries of importance, until the bridge made it all scenery flying by. How I wished it would become scenery for me soon. I did not believe in love and I had no interest in a woman who did. I just wanted her, and all the moments with her, to begin.
My father propped up with one hand while holding himself with the other, making a thin trickle on the knotted tree trunk before shaking off and returning to the carriage. I thought I saw the villagers grimacing at him, or mocking him, or both.
“You should go as well,” he said. “Who knows how long we will be stuck here.”
“What if we don’t arrive in time?” I said. “What happens to the wedding?”
“My son is worried, yes?” he said, taking satisfaction, suddenly, in being the father. “Let us see what my friend tells us. He is a good friend to have.”
The landowner was ambling back. He spat on the ground to punctuate whatever deal he must have made. The toll-master was calling for a few other men. Everyone else who had surrounded us grew bored with our procession and resumed their business.
“What did you get them to do?” my brother said, clearly annoyed he hadn’t succeeded in the same.
“You go ahead with the horses across the river,” the landowner said. “And we will be pulled along with those logs they are roping together, see? We place the carriage atop them, keep it clean that way instead of dirtying all of our wedding materials. They hoist and we move along. The river is shallow enough for them to cross this way, walking and pulling. An easy way to make the kind of money I gave them.”
My brother walked back to his horse to start crossing the river. Men waist-deep in its sludge were tying old logs together so that they would float with a good tug. The river looked wider than it had before and the sky meaner. The men in the water probably couldn’t see their own feet, the water was so black.
“We’ll see you at the other bank,” my brother said, already to his boots in the river. He seemed eager to get his clothes muddied, as if it were a proof of valor to wade through mud.
“What an enterprise,” my father said.
“It is nothing,” the landowner said. “They do it for bigger loads than ours when the bridge is out. Goods need to move from place to place, do they not? They can’t stop commerce for a storm. Or else what are we, hmm? Animals.”
“Should we help them?” I said.
The landowner laughed. “This one wants to get dirty with the river people on his wedding day.”
“He’s right that there aren’t enough men,” my father said. “The carriage is heavy, is it not?”
“There are as many men as we need,” the landowner said.
“Why don’t we just leave the carriage?” I said. “We can return in it, and my bride can be impressed then, yes?”
But my father was already out, walking across the bridge to lighten the load. “Until the other side,” he said, and waved.
“Let us walk as well,” I said.
“I must sit in the carriage, son,” he said. “Make sure they don’t float it off course or sink it from spite. And the groom sits with me. Come. You only get a good wedding once, even if you get married again.”
I sat back down on that hard bench, feeling like I had lost a battle I had never started to fight. We drove slowly onto the raft of logs.
I had never touched a body of water larger than the village pond, which cooled us on summer days. The river was a different beast. It moved like a serpent, darkly and unexpectedly. We were swaying unnaturally in that unknowable muck, and I regretted every sweet they put in my mouth before starting the procession that morning. Nothing helped me feel well. Staring at the water made it worse. Staring at the sky made it worse. Staring at the men made it worse, their stringy muscles straining under their dark skin, up to their shoulders in that brown water. They were sweating despite the cold, such was their labor. I never prayed, so I closed my eyes and tried to count to 500 by fives, just to give my mind something to do other than worry. It was enough to keep me somewhat occupied but it ended too soon. The river was wide, and our progress slow.
“You know the film Jhoola?” he asked me.
“No,” I said.
“Well we should sing, people sing for weddings yes?” the landowner said.
“Women do,” I said.
“Na jaane kidhar aaj meri naav chali re,” he sang off key. “Best song in years, my son.”
“What is this feeling? From the water?” I said.
“You are looking a little yellow,” the landowner laughed. “Seasickness. It is very common. It will end when you are on land. Just like that, gone.”
“The sea has its own sickness?” I said. “As it should.”
“Or you are nervous to see your bride, perhaps?” he said.
I didn’t reply, but he kept speaking.
“Don’t worry. Women are simple. All they want is kindness,” he said. “And a good giving every month or so.”
“What do you mean?”
“No one ever taught you? I thought you people came to know such things early in life,” he said. “People of the land like you I mean. It’s what the animals do. Just the same. Women complicate it unnecessarily, yes, but it is just the same. Some caressing is required first. And perhaps afterwards as well. Don’t worry, my son. It is natural. Though I must say, it is surprising you have never had a girl before.”
“I have,” I said, thinking sharply of her twig legs spread in the dirt. “A girl in our town. Mala,” I added. To prove it was true.
“Mala, who is her family?”
“I can’t recall,” I said. Of course I knew, but I would not give him the satisfaction of knowing. Mala. Her boy’s body and choppy black hair. In my seasickness I remembered more clearly than ever before the feeling of that day, the heat of humiliation, the prick of the sharp ground against my knees and palms, her breath, oniony and sweet, hitting my face in gusts from her laughter. The way my brothers caught us in the act and tried to help me pull it off, laughing when I stayed limp. My Mala said, “Even animals do it, Ram, how stupid can you be?” Of course I recalled her family name.
“Good boy. Doesn’t matter for girls like that,” the landowner said. “Your wife? She is different. Better. Her father has the same stature, maybe a little better, than your father. He works for me, similar work, in that village. He manages to collect more than your father, and in a more timely way. I am not sure how he does it, and if there is something unsavory about it, I do not condone such things. But I also don’t bother with such information, you see, because I can’t afford the time it takes to worry about such things. This is what I know. I know the money comes to me. I know that sometimes, it is more than I expect. And I know that is how your family receives its little bonuses. In a way, the bride price has been paid many times over.”
I said nothing. I counted higher, to a thousand, let him speak.
“So this bride of yours,” he said, “while she is a village girl, she is accustomed to certain things, the same as you. And I am glad we have this time together so I can tell you that you must work for me. If you like, I mean. There is work in my business, and it’s good work. Your father, he does some things for me these last few years, he keeps my investments sound. You understand? But he is getting old, and it helps to have some youth for the work. Some muscle. You are thin as cane but I can tell you have some strength in you. Maybe you can surpass your bride’s father, even. That’s how you earn respect from a woman, by the way.”
I counted still more, imagining every count as one step further from the moment in which I appeared trapped. The numbers were comforting and steady, like my life with my betrothed could be, if I survived this river.
“To maintain a woman and children,” he continued, “you need more than what land provides. Your father learned this too late, so you had to be poor. Your mother hated ambition. Women are such, you will see. You have to avoid listening to them on any subject but the home and the children. This was your father’s weakness, surely you know. To listen too much. To be too kind. You want to be a better man, don’t you?”
He knew how to persuade. How is it that he could name the weakness in my father that I never could? Perhaps he did understand the world. Perhaps there was something to be said for his life, my father’s new life, this carriage, our luxuries, the luxuries my wife expected. A girl like Mala knew nothing of such comforts. A girl who would let you touch her in the dirt.
That day, when I finally gave up, Mala stood and put her underwear back on, shamelessly bending over, letting me see her again, for the last time. I tried not to cry from embarrassment and the pain in my knees and palms from the ground rubbing them raw. When my father saw the cuts and asked what happened, my brothers implied I had dirtied myself with a girl, that there was no other way for a boy my age to get those marks.
“Check his palms,” they yelled. I imagined it is the lot of youngest sons to be mocked. My father, who had hair then, and broad shoulders and the body of a bull, poured near-scalding water on my knees, which he said would heal them. But there was no beating.
“Now go, play with your brothers,” he said.
“I got a beating for fooling with girls,” my eldest brother said.
“You think I am an idiot?” my father said. “Look at him. If he had slipped in, he would look happy, would he not? Nothing happened except a little fun, am I right, son?”
“Say it,” my father said.
“Yes, father, you are right,” I said. I had never wanted a beating more in my life.
Within a year Mala was married, when she was fourteen and I was twelve. A groom came for her from some other village. The rumor was he had already run through two wives who bore no children. He had gray in his hair and dark teeth. What would Mala do with an old man, I wondered, an old hard man. Out of spite for him, I did not attend the wedding or wish her goodbye. Instead I ran to the railway to walk alone along that perfect, precise line of wood and metal, counting tracks, letting the locomotives deafen my ears. Her family left not long after her wedding, moving who knows where, some place that required more metal, a city, maybe. And Mala, Mala could be anywhere.
People left places now, even people like us, not just the landlord, not just the landless, like Mala. I could take my wife and go. People could choose to leave, no matter where fate put them, no matter the luxuries they had to leave behind. I could be free of my father, of the landlord, of that village and who I was in it, a lizard of a man, desperate to be clutched in Mala’s little hand.
We had made it halfway across the river when the landowner was finally silent, staring straight ahead, at the bank where my brothers and father already stood. I watched the men in the water. They must have been cold to their marrow despite their grunting labor. I started to feel a rhythm to our movement, to the water, and I matched my counting to it like a hymnal. My stomach churned as if the river were inside it. The longer we were on the water, the sicker I felt, the more convinced I was that we would never be on ground again.
The landowner began speaking again: “It is honest work, too, son, let me be clear. I can tell you care about that sort of thing. You are principled. But you are also your father’s son, are you not? You have a duty to him, and after today, you have a duty to your wife. These are not trivialities. You belong to him, and to me. Not as property, but as family. Yes?”
“Yes,” I said, my queasiness sapping my urge to disagree.
“The whole countryside, all you peasants, are angry at us landowners, and for what? The way a son vainly struggles against a father. Give it up, I say. We are bound to each other, just as roots are bound to the land, you are bound to me and to the village, and you will follow your father’s footsteps, one by one. Say it, yes.”
“Yes,” I said. I could no longer count, I could no longer imagine life leading me somewhere else, anywhere other than this watery trap, all I had were indefinite waves of nausea.
“And let me say this: there is nothing wrong, and in fact everything right, with making sure we are paid what we are owed, even if it requires some, let’s say convincing. Yes? Say it.”
“Yes,” I said. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“For god’s sake, do it outside the carriage.”
I pulled aside one of the red drapes hanging over the cart and vomited onto the logs and nearly tipped into the river. The river men laughed openly and shamelessly at me. They spoke in some sort of dialect I didn’t need to understand to know what they were saying. A tumultuous memory of Mala, the river men’s laughter becoming my brothers’ laughter, rose as if from the river muck. I vomited again, my stomach filled now only with a bilious fear of my future.
“God, my boy, you’ll have nothing left inside you when we arrive,” the landowner said. “Be calm. There is the shore. Our crossing is almost complete. Before soon you and your wife will be taking your vows. Come, now, be calm, be a man, it is just a river.”
He had barely finished speaking when the carriage lurched low and one of the river men released a savage scream. I gripped the landowner’s arm and the carriage door to try to feel steady but I couldn’t. I was certain we were sinking and that somehow the river floor would open beneath us. A prayer ran helplessly through my mind. I heard screaming and wondered if it was mine before realizing it belonged to the man in the river.
“Get out boy, come on, let go of me,” the landowner said. He opened his door and stepped carefully along the logs, now tipped upward, the rope binding them unraveling. He hopped to shore, muddying his good leather shoes, his belly wiggling for a time after he landed, as if he were still on uncertain ground. My side of the carriage felt like it was still sinking. I opened my door.
“The other side, boy, the other side, don’t get in the mud, have some sense,” the landowner was shouting. I looked up to see him, my father and my brothers, full of reproach. I stepped out on my own side and found the logs. I set my feet down. The water came to my ankle, but then suddenly it was at my hip.
I gasped, feeling briefly as though my fall would not end. The water would pull me under, my bride would remain an unnamed mystery. Mala would be the only woman I would ever know, sweet young Mala, so ready, so free, landless, barreling into the unknown world like a train.
But there was the bottom of the river, silt slipping under my feet. Ground. I had never been so grateful for it. For a moment everything calmed in my mind. And then I saw the man in the river, his screams now pained grunts, his eyes an anguished grey, reflecting the clouds above. The other river men were trying to carry him to shore, tugging his floating, reluctant body. I roped my forearms around his legs and helped hoist him up. We waded the short distance to the bank and lay him on the dirt.
There, I saw the reason for the man’s screaming. The skin and muscle of his right hand had been wiped off, down to the eerie white bone. The limb must have been caught between the logs. Feeling like we were still on water, like we would always be on water, I took off my kurta and wrapped it around what was left of his arm. He looked at me like a dying cow, brown eyes full of base fear, mouth open but saying nothing.
“It is alright,” I said. “You will be fine. Just hold this.” I pressed the cloth onto his arm and watched it redden in seconds. I felt sick again. I looked up to find the other men but they were talking angrily with the landowner. More money passed to them and they pulled the carriage from the river and onto the road. Another conversation began. The landowner refused to speak and returned to the carriage as my brother harnessed the horses to it again.
“Come, Ram,” the landowner said. “Time is passing. Think of your wife. In just a few hours she will be yours. These bastards made me pay again just to lift the carriage the last few feet.”
The injured man had already bled through my kurta, now dripping heavily into the dirt. I started to take off my undershirt to put around him but my fingers shook too much. I tried to think of Mala, or even my wife, her long hair and white teeth, but all I could think of was what was under my kurta, that gleaming white bone.
“You can’t go naked to your own wedding, you idiot,” my brother said. He was back on his horse and his boots were already dry.
“Get up,” my father was hoisting me by the shoulders, my old father, who could barely piss a line. “Get up you dumb child.”
I stood. I wanted to say something to the man but what was there to say? I walked back to the beastly carriage. I heard the other men speaking to my father.
“He will lose the hand. No work. No earnings. No food. Please, sir,” one said in broken formal language.
“It only happened because of your groom,” said the second man. “The vomit.”
“We have paid you,” my father said. “Best of luck. Our apologies.”
“Fucking apologies, what are they?” the second man said.
“They are what civilized people offer and what civilized people accept,” my father said. I had never heard him speak with such cruelty. I watched as he pulled a wad of crisp bills from his pocket, more money than numbers I had counted on the wretched river.
“Take it. Take it and be well,” my father said. He patted the man who had cursed at him on the back like they were well acquainted. My father and the men looked down at the injured one, who was nearly unconscious, my coat now dripping with his blood. They shook hands.