Firstly, I would like to thank you for visiting this post. This is an important one. This post marks the beginning of a new story. I’m trying my hand at Magic Realism and telling the story of the Bengali Migration that happened in the 1960s, through the form of fiction.
Many Bengalis were displaced at the time and many, many people suffered and died in the name of religion, forced out of their homes and forced to find new ones. It wasn’t a choice, it was decision that was essentially made for them. There is much writing on the 1964 riots of East Bengal and it is clear that wounds have not healed. I am in the process of research and writing. And for now, this feels like good.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the opening chapter. Any resemblance to people living or dead, is purely coincidental. If you have any stories to share or any experiences to relate, I would be honoured to listen.
“The young witch, who lived alone, had hair that fell heavily over her shoulders, down to her ankles and then trailed along the floor in a thick black plait. For convenience, so she would not trip over it, she tied it up like a rope at her waist.”
“But why didn’t she just cut it?”
“Oh, the witch could never cut her hair, because that is where she held her magic. You know this already. She would comb it out every full moon and catch the silver beams in her dark strands, that she spread out like a net, tricking them into thinking that that was where the night was. Should I continue?”
I nodded, shuffling forward in my seat. She carried on in her dreamy voice, looking far away, playing with my fingers, as if remembering what she had seen with her own eyes.
“She would often venture into the village on the nights of the new moon, for that is how witches work; with the moon, and she would gather up little sleeping girls as if they were apples and carry them home in her cart made from the bones of men.
Sometimes she would find just one girl, on other nights she would find two or three. And each time she would leave behind a doll that looked just like the girl she had taken, so the family would not suspect. The dolls would be just like the girls she took, but for one thing; they would not have a heart and soon they would fall sick and appear to die. The villagers, because they were mainly stupid and superstitious, would think that the girls must have done something bad and that they were being punished. Either way, the villagers would mourn for a very short time and then move on.
“The witch took them, during those blackest nights, to her house that stood on stilts, in the heart of the forest. Behind her house, she had a garden where she would bury the girls when they were of no use and harvest the fruits that grew from their remains, for her spells and enchantments. Covered in snaking vines and roots, the house looked, to the untrained eye, like a mound of nothing but debris, with no door or windows, and this is how the witch liked it. But no one ventured that far into the forest anyway, so no one saw it. It was just a precaution. She felt it important to be hidden, for now.”
“Why did she steal the girls?” I asked; my usual prompt at this point. And she smiled as she continued.
“She took the girls to train as her slaves. She taught them how to cook for her and how to clean her home. She watched them grow, felt their sorrow, and measured their strength with a special cup which caught their tears each time they cried. She did all this because she was waiting for the one to call her own; an heir, but for centuries, she could find none…”
“Until the new moon one summer’s night, when the cicadas sang and the air hung heavy with the scent of jasmine and clamoured with the hymns of unscrupulous men,” I finished for her.
“Yes,” she said.
My mother stopped talking then. The room was too quiet, suddenly. She looked deep into my eyes and held my gaze for a long time, as if searching for something. I was the first to look away and when I looked back, she was wiping away a tear.
The ghosts in the room were watching too. They leant in, concern playing at the edge of their forms, between their space and ours and we waited.
“I think my allergies are playing up,” she laughed.
“Please, Mama, finish the story this time,” I said but she didn’t. She never did.
We lived in a mid-terraced two up-two down council house, in a rundown area of the city. My mother had one room and I shared the other with my grandmother, my mother’s mother. I didn’t mind because the old lady had her own stories and her light, buzzing snores helped me sleep at night.
My grandmother took me to school, walked me to the gates and left me in the playground where I met other brown faced girls who knew some part of what I knew.
They did not stare at the oil in my hair, they did not mispronounce my name and tell me it sounded exotic or strange, they did not comment on the sari my grandmother wore; draped formally and correctly at all times, and they certainly did not comment at the way she always looked stern because they all had grandmothers who might have looked that way.
My grandmother’s expression was severe because she refused to smile and when she spoke it was in tones of bitterness like the bitter gourd she would fry with onions and make me eat. While she cooked, she told her stories and while she told her stories, sometimes she forgot to scowl. Sometimes I would watch her, knowing she thought the room was empty. In those times, her stories were like fairy tales, talking of impossible things, like suitors bringing her gold the weight of a peacock or rain that fell like arrows and turned to flowers when they hit the ground. She was softer, then.
“When I was young, I had hair so long, it would come down past my ankles and trail along the ground,” she said to me one day. “I had a maid who would comb it out for me every time after I bathed in the lake by our house.”
I would stare at her then, and wonder who she really was because a part of me believed in the stories my mother told, but I also knew I was not afraid of the woman whose hair was once so long, it trailed along the ground past her ankles. It barely reached her shoulders now and hung limp and thin like the tale of a dead rat.
“I would swim with the silver koi and dive to watch them scatter like lightning under water. I was always a very good swimmer. Whenever I bathed, I would swim until I my lungs hurt, until I had your mother, that is. Then all that had to stop.”
When she spoke about my mother, her scowl returned.
Their features were almost the same, yet they were so very different. Their skin, pale; the colour of fresh cream, their eyes small, brown and impish were shrewd and all seeing, and their frames; slight, small and fragile, all made them unmistakably related. The differences were subtle. My mother smiled often, even when she didn’t always want to and when she spoke, her voice did not rasp and saw at the air. My mother’s wrists were bare, but my grandmother wore bangles of gold and steel, symbolising she was once married and when I asked my grandmother about them, she told me she used to have more, fashioned from white conch and red glass, but she broke them off, smashing them until they caught her skin and made her bleed, all on the front step of her house when my grandfather died. She told me as well, that he died of shame when my mother became pregnant with me.
When she spoke of my mother and me this way, I never really felt she was talking about us. We were one of her stories and she was the witch in one of my mother’s. We were far removed from her reality and she from ours. Her words fell like ice chips, inconsequential and barely there and I wondered if she ever did love us.