[an excerpt from a longer piece]
From Ruhi’s perch at the back of the canoe, the stars seemed to glide like water-skeeters on the glowing blackness of the Hooghly. Wooden slats pushed into her bottom, creating temporary dents in the untouched skin. Small splints scratched at her thighs.
Often Ruhi liked to lean her head back, letting it drop like a scale with newly-added weight, and stare up into the maze of bright pinholes in the sky. The stars pulsed with the rhythmic chatter of crickets and frogs on the banks.
Once, in a town they had stopped at, the air burdened with humidity and mosquitoes, Ruhi had seen a white man in a top hat calling out, his voice looping up and down. Sound and light show, three rupees! Only three rupees… All are welcome! Ruhi had scampered through the moisture, over and around puddles, her muddy jute skirt flapping from side to side, to find Abesh. A bill wheedled from him was her ticket in, and back she went past the top hat and through the gates. She watched, eyes wide for an hour, as pink and blue and orange lights flashed across a small fort and a man’s voice told the story of kings and queens from a megaphone behind her.
The frogs and crickets, the fireflies, the ripples on the river, and the stars: this was her personal sound and light show, she liked to think. As the rest of Bengal slept, the show began.
From Ruhi’s perch at the back of the canoe, the view is always the same.
Straight ahead is Abesh, his sinewy back rippling in the moonlight as he passes an oar from hand to hand, pulling the water artfully, caressing it. She liked watching him, found comfort in his silhouette.
To his left sits Batuk, slouching over so the bumps of his spine made a C shape. Smoke, blown in Os, disappears into the fog.
Jeetu’s slight frame is barely visible to the right. More than sight, he is noticed by sound, his humming sometimes soft, the downbeats syncing with each dip of Abesh’s oar. When it becomes loud and Jeetu begins to belt out words, old Bengali folk songs that he heard in some street corner or another, Abesh and Batuk turn to him. Batuk claps him on the head. Chup! Abesh warns him. Quiet. They will hear us. They will know we are thieves.
Batuk came back dancing, swinging his hips and twirling his hands as he ran. Nimbly he hopped onto the boat, a golden necklace dropping onto his hairy chest and a bangle of the same color squeezing his wrist. Abesh began to row and the stars started gliding again. The old hag didn’t have much, but I got it all. How do I look, Jeetu? Better than your mother, no? He cackled. Bet she’s never had this much gold in her life.
Jeetu said nothing. The humming stopped.
You, Ruhi? Your ma’s dead, I know. But I look more like a woman than you ever will. He struck a match and as a new cigarette began to glow, embers fell into the river before going out, looking like stars that had suddenly disappeared. Batuk exhaled, then laughed again. A harsh sound.
Shut up. Abesh’s tone was firm. Leave them alone.
Everyone was quiet. Soon Jeetu’s song began to vibrate through the night again, and to Ruhi it felt like home, or the closest thing to it.
It was Ruhi’s job to go shopping. Her big eyes and the curves that were beginning to emerge at her sides crowned her with a disguise of innocence. After a successful loot, she would don the pink cotton sari she carefully preserved in a jute bag and stroll into town.
At the jewellers’ she would always tell the same story. They would always believe her. My mother is bedridden with fever, she would whimper, trying to summon a tear. She wants to sell this gold for medicine. Please give us a good price. They always would.
With a wad of cash in hand, the market was her next stop. Spirals of dried hilsa fish adorned hawkers’ baskets. Oil sizzled with tangerine-colored syrup, jalebis slowly emerging. Pyramids of fruit. Being careful not to spend all the money, Ruhi would stock up with roti, fish curry, singhara, eggs, and run back to Abesh, who waited at the river bank. Abesh patted her head, stashed the wad of cash in a cloth belt around his waist, and squatted to ladle the food onto four banana leaves Ruhi plucked, winking at her as he dropped an extra gulab jamun on her leaf. Then together they would cup their hands around their mouths and call, Batuk! Jeetu!
The two others would eventually materialize from the brush. The only reason we keep a girl, Batuk would smirk. Ruhi had learned to ignore the jab in his words, but in a sense, she thought, Batuk was right. She did not row, she did not steal, she did not even know how to tie the rope to the bank so that the canoe wouldn’t drift into the tide. And although it was not often that they met another band of dakaths, Ruhi had never seen another girl living the same life. She was the only one who traveled on the river at night suffering from monthly cramps or fearing the assault of men who might see her long hair and think of lustful, cruel, things to force upon her.
She did not know how ladies were supposed to act or what they were supposed to do; few women came to the market instead of their husbands. When she saw one, she would glance at the black curves they drew around their eyes and the red powder in the parts of their hair. She did not know what womanhood meant; it was an elusive secret. Yet she did not want to know. Marriage was, perhaps, somewhere in her future if anyone would accept a vagabond girl raised by a band of thieves. It would be arranged by Abesh. It did not matter. Motherhood was even further away, or maybe never, so it mattered even less. She was just Ruhi, a dakath, and Ruhi just happened to have breasts and a slit in between her legs.
The four thieves sat in a line parallel to the river bank, facing the catal trees on the other shore, scooping up rice and fish in the crux of their thumb and pointer, middle, and ring fingers. The fish was fresh, caught that morning. It tasted like the fish that Abesh would hook from the boat and roast over a miniature fire on the shore if they had run out of money to buy food from the market.
Today at the market I saw a lady who was as fat as a hippo, Ruhi said. She had never seen a hippo, but heard that they could weigh more than a freight train.
Fat enough to sink our boat? asked Abesh, black eyes sparkling in the midday sun.
Our boat is getting so roughed up that even Jeetu can sink it, Batuk said, punching Jeetu as the young boy laughed, his ribs visibly shaking up and down.
Ajay could’ve fixed it. Ruhi regretted the sentence as soon as she said it. Her eyes glossed over and she blinked and squeezed her lids shut to prevent the tears from escaping. Abesh squeezed her shoulder with his clean hand, his strong fingers calming her.
Ajay was gone. They had sat like this four years ago, in a line facing the river, with Ajay’s unmoving body before them. Red splotches ran over his chest like a galaxy. They had not known what to do with him. They knew no prayers, no omens to help their companion to the next life without hassle. So in the end Jeetu had sang a song, Abesh telling him to sing loud and clear for once. This river will take me to the sky, it went. They had all wept. Burning the body and throwing the ashes into the river, Ruhi had never felt more empty.
It was because of Ajay, her elder brother, that she was here. Five years older than her, Ajay remembered their mother’s death. He told her about it once, when the rash had crawled up to his neck and his breathing, slow, scratched like palm leaves in the wind, and he knew that he was going to die.
Ma died like this.
Ajay, don’t say that. You are here. With me. I won’t let you go.
Aré, listen. Death is a part of us. Death is why we’re here.
Ajay stopped. Coughed. Continued. The crickets quieted, as if for him.
Ma was so sick, like me. She just lay there all day. You were little and you didn’t understand. Ruhi, you used to try to lie next to her, but her skin was so hot it would burn you. I had to come take you off the bed, away from her, and she would cry. My baby girl. She cried so much, Ruhi, I can still hear it. She couldn’t bear to leave you.
I remember a little bit.
One day, she was gone. Her eyes lost their depth and that’s how I could tell. Baba loved her so much, it almost killed him too. He left us alone at night, just one day at first but then day after day after day. Every single fucking day he would come back smelling of piss and alcohol. Have you ever seen me touch a bottle, Ruhi? That’s why.
Ajay gritted his teeth.
That was it at first. Then it really started. The hitting. He would hit me with anything, shoes, his bare fists. Once with a brick he used to build other peoples’ houses. Once I hit him back too, fucking punched him as hard as I could. His nose bled a river. He got mad. So mad he could’ve killed me. He took the curtain rod and smashed it across my neck.
Ruhi stared at the scar above his collarbone, ran her hands down its length. Carefully, as if it would still hurt.
You told me it was a cricket bat.
And now I’m telling you the truth.
They were silent.
Why did you stay, Ajay? You should have left. You should have left me.
I almost did, Ruhi.
What do you mean?
Silence. Ajay took a breath. Closed his eyes.
I didn’t want you to suffer under that man. Death is a part of life. Slavery isn’t. One day I took you to the river and tied a rock to your ankle. You were such a small girl, still six or seven.
The black line of the opposite riverbank blurred in Ruhi’s eyes. I thought it was a game we were playing. She didn’t know what to say to her brother, her almost-killer and now-saviour.
I waited, trying to gather the courage, the will to do evil to stop evil. It was Abesh who stopped me. Ran up and punched me so hard I couldn’t stand up. Kicked me too. I couldn’t breathe.
Again he pulled in a long breath.
Before he could kick me again, I told him the story. He saw we were desperate, refugees in our own house. And he told us to go with them and become dakaths. Jeetu still sang then, although his arms were as thin as sticks. Batuk even then was an asshole.
But they saved us. Those three bastards are our family, all we have left. Here we are, alive. What else could we want?
Eight days later, his eyes lost their depth.