What the water takes, sometimes it gives back
It had been raining for eight days straight when Premlalwa decided that it was time to brave the downpour. They had had nothing to eat but rotis with sidra ko achar for the last four days, and Premlalwa had had enough of the cloying spice in the fish pickle.
Kamodwali, of course, protested. Flash floods had already washed away three people, and most of the roads were knee-deep in brackish water overflowing from the fields. But Premlalwa wouldn’t listen. He’d made up his mind.
His umbrella was sturdy, large enough to comfortably seat two fully grown adults underneath. He put on his black calf-high gumboots, hitched his dhoti high on his waist, grabbed a jute sack, and stepped out.
Almost immediately, he was blown back inside by the wind. A fierce gale had spun the rain sideways, turning every drop into a tiny dagger that pierced the exposed skin on Premlalwa’s bearded face.
The Baraha river was a ten-minute walk on a sunny day, but in the wind and rain, it took him close to a half hour. When he arrived on the shores of the swollen river, his dhoti had slipped down to his crotch, heavy with moisture, the umbrella proving to be a lot less effective in the slanting rain. The river was livid, thrashing this way and that, bilious currents expanding into large eddies of violent surf. But he was relieved to see that his nets were still intact, slashed sturdily in fisherman’s knots against four wooden posts he’d hammered in himself. Even from the banks, he could see that the nets were bursting with fish straining against the nylon.
Premlalwa knew he wouldn’t be able to take down the nets in this weather but he planned to grab at least a few fish. He would keep two for Kamodwali to turn into a curry, and the rest could be used to barter for some fresh vegetables. All he had left at home were a few potatoes and milk from Basanti.
He made his way unsteadily towards the nets, prodding the ground ahead of him with his foot before resting his weight. Despite over a week of rain, the river had yet to breach its banks, but it was close. He knew that the ground tended to give way quickly during rains like these. If he fell into the river, which had turned large, fast, and violent, it was unlikely his body would ever be found.
But after decades of making a living off of its fish and water, he knew the Baraha well. The river was kin, and you could always count on family.
He managed to grab four live fish from the net with much difficulty. They were fat and slimy but Premlalwa grabbed them by their coarse tail fins as they thrashed about, leaping into the air in a last paroxysm of survival. But he wanted at least half a dozen. These days, a decent five- fish barely got him a kilo of cauliflower, and he was desperate for Kamodwali’s cauli-aloo. But catching two more fish proved harder than he thought. They slipped easily through his gnarled hands, the calluses on his fingers not providing enough of a grip on their shiny silver scales.
Premlalwa was still attempting to get ahold of two more fish when he was distracted by movement in his peripheral vision. Decades of working the fields, fishing the rivers, and walking dark backwoods roads had blessed him with an almost preternatural instinct for danger. Packs of roving jackals often invaded the fields, looking for anything they could carry away. On the river banks, any errant wave could send you tumbling into the waters where lotus reeds laid in wait like fibrous manacles. And everyone knows that when you are approached by anyone at night on the roads, you don’t talk, you run. There are worse things than dacoits on the nightly roads.
He saw it again, movement on the banks, a little ways up from his netting. There was a dark, indistinct shape, moving about on the pebble-strewn banks, just on the edge of the water. It was too large to be an animal and too small to be a person. Premlalwa was a curious man, and he made his way over to the shape, the fish abandoned.
The closer he got, the quicker he went. The shape had appendages, arms and legs. The torso was turning slowly, the arms splayed out. When it stopped moving, Premlalwa saw that the shape was a female child, about six or seven years of age, naked, skinny and malnourished with a shock of dark hair on her head. Her skin was stretched thin and papery over her tiny frame. Her ribs pushed out against her chest, and her collarbones protruded like fencing. Premlalwa rushed closer and turned the child over on her back.
When he saw her face, he recoiled violently. Her closed eyes were abnormally large, set in wide sockets that stretched across the breadth of her face. Above a mouth ringed by uncharacteristically thick, full lips was a blank space where her nose should’ve been. The child was wheezing, long, ragged breaths coming out of three narrow raw slits of skin on either side of her neck.
Premlalwa almost reached out to touch the child before deciding instead to use the point of his umbrella to gently prod her. The wheezing grew louder and the child turned back on her side, the slits in her neck sputtering. For a minute, Premlalwa stood watching the child. He half-expected the breaths to stop and for the body to go limp. He saw it all the time when he pulled fish out of the water. But the child continued to rasp, twisting and turning as if attempting to find a more comfortable position on her pebble bed.
Premlalwa didn’t quite know what to do, so he bent down, nestled the umbrella in the crook of his neck, clutched the jute sack between his thumb and index finger, and scooped her up in his arms. He began the slow walk home, barely able to see where his foot was landing. He tripped numerous times but did not fall, his gumboots working to keep his feet level with shifting ground.
The child was slippery, covered in the rain and slime. She smelled of moss and brine and felt no heavier than the large fish that Premlalwa often pulled out of the river. Premlalwa held her tight. He could feel her heartbeat against his own, an erratic rhythm that seemed to have no pattern. She twisted against him but appeared to have no real strength to get out of his grasp.
Her breathing sputtered and for a second, it stopped. Premlalwa had almost dropped her to the ground to check on her when she started and took a big, long gulp of air. The rasp was gone, and her breath now came slow and powerful. It was as if she were drinking in the air, long, greedy swallows like a man parched.
When he finally got home, the child had begun to breathe normally and was straining against Premlalwa. Her strength appeared to be returning, and he could feel her body grow warm. He deposited her in the cow shed, placing her on a straw mat next to Basanti, his prized cow who consistently produced twelve liters of milk a day. Basanti was Premlalwa’s only real source of sustenance, as the income from his fishing was less regular. Basanti shifted nervously, sensing the alien presence in her shed, but she was kind and accommodating and, so, moved over to allow the child some space on her straw pile.
Premlalwa patted Basanti on her soft head and scratched her behind the ears. The girl-child was now staring up at Premlalwa with wide unblinking eyes, all dark and black like a doll’s eyes. In the dim light of the shed, Premlalwa felt a shiver run through him. He exited the shed quickly.
Kamodwali managed to make a thick, fragrant curry out of the fish. It was just the way Premlalwa liked it, flavored with tea leaves and infused with turmeric. He sat in front of the wood fire stove with a plateful of curry while Kamodwali tossed freshly risen rotis from the tawa onto his plate. He was half-way into his fourth piece of bread when a loud gurgling led them both to turn towards the doorway. Standing silhouetted in the dim light of the only bulb in their home was the girl-child, arms askance.
Kamodwali screamed, tossing the next roti straight at the child. The bread hit her straight in her prepubescent chest and she let out another gurgle, like water swirling in the hollow of a creek.
Premlalwa hadn’t planned on telling Kamodwali about the child. He knew how she would’ve reacted. Kamodwali got up at five every morning to perform her surya namaskar and pray to the gods at the makeshift altar in one corner of their one-room shack. She lit incense, rang a tinny bell and said her mantras. She believed that it was inauspicious to see an owl, a monkey, a snake or a donkey early in the morning. And she also believed in every demon, witch, rakshas, pichas and nar-pichas that was purported to exist.
With the girl-child now standing in the doorway, Premlalwa had no choice but to attempt to explain all that had happened, as Kamodwali muttered prayers while holding out a burning piece of wood in front of her.
“What is it?” she screamed.
“She’s just a child,” Premlalwa ventured. “I found her by the river.”
Premlalwa explained finding the girl-child on the banks of the Baraha and how he’d brought her back to the shed. All the while, Kamodwali held out the wood like a spear, even as the child inched closer to Premlalwa’s abandoned plate of food. He pulled Kamodwali back.
“She’s probably just hungry,” he said, as the girl-child grabbed his plate and thrust her face into the remaining morsels of fish curry.
Her head down, she licked and slurped as clinks of teeth striking metal filled the room.
When her feeding frenzy subsided, Premlalwa approached her slowly, one foot at a time, one arm outstretched. He had gotten to within two feet of her when her head snapped up, and she snarled, opening her mouth wide to reveal at least two rows of tiny jagged teeth.
Premlalwa leapt back quickly.
The girl-child now made her way to the curry pot on all fours, ambling like an animal, and plunged her head into the still-warm gravy. The couple watched in horror as she proceeded to devour the entire pot, bones and all.
“It’s a pichas,” whispered Kamodwali. “You brought back a demon.”
Premlalwa did not disagree but he found himself unable to speak. He watched silently as the girl-child ate her fill and then crawled off to one side of the wood-fire stove to lie on her side. When her breathing got steady, he inched over and peered at her. She was asleep.
“You need to kill it while it’s asleep or it will kill and eat us,” said Kamodwali. She gestured towards the large kitchen knife with the jagged blade that she had used to gut the fish.
Premlalwa was reluctant but under Kamodwali’s prodding, he picked up the knife and walked over, careful not to make a sound. He got on his haunches and bent over the sleeping form. The knife point glittered in the dim light and the girl twitched.
The child might have been hideous, but it was a child, and its form so uncannily familiar. She slept with her hands under her head like a pillow, sleeping the sleep of the just. Her abdomen was firm and taut. Her eyes, so large and wild, were closed lightly and her thick lips pursued. As she breathed, her sides rose and fell in conjunction. The body itself, small and lithe, a child’s form, yet untouched by the ravages of life.
“Do it,” hissed Kamodwali urgently from the corner.
But Premlalwa couldn’t.
“Your cowardice will be the death of both of us,” Kamodwali spat as he returned to her side.
They huddled by the bed. Theirs was a one-room shack, with the wood-fire stove at one end and their bed on the other, next to the entrance. It was night and outside, the only sound was the roar of the storm.
“If we go to sleep, it will kill us in our dreams,” said Kamodwali.
“Hush woman, if you keep talking, she is sure to wake,” Premlalwa spoke at last. “We’ll stay up all night and in the morning, ask the mukhiya what to do.”
Kamodwali grumbled but the two of them sat together, arms locked around each other, staring at the sleeping form beside the wood fire. It would be a while before Kamodwali fell asleep against her husband’s shoulder, but the rain kept Premlalwa awake.
It had been raining for eight days when the Baraha river burst its banks two decades ago, sweeping away close to half of Premlalwa’s entire village. A dozen men and women went missing. They found the body of Premlalwa’s six-year-old brother two days later. He was naked, and his small, rake-thin body had already turned blue. Premlalwa’s father and mother were never found. Premlalwa himself was only saved because he managed to cling on to Radha, Basanti’s mother, as she flailed around in the flood waters.
But what the river took, it gave back. Premlalwa grew up on the banks of the river, homeless and an orphan, with Radha, and later Basanti, for company. The Baraha taught him to fish and then sell those fish in the market or trade them for produce. He caught twice as many fish as the other fishermen, and his nets never broke. His fish were fresh, fat, and beautiful, and he soon made enough to lease a plot of land and build a hut. The village elders had no trouble arranging his marriage to Kamodwali. He had a steady income, a cow and a home.
He knew the river well — that she was as generous as she was capricious. You could find enlightenment in her waters, but you could just as easily find doom. Every year, the river claimed a few lives as tribute. But she provided fish and water, and each time the river rose, she left behind soil so fertile you could double your harvest.
Rain fed the Baraha to the point of bursting. That night too, as Premlalwa sat guard over a sleeping girl-child, the river rose quickly, breaching her banks in a matter of hours. The same waters that Premlalwa had plucked fish out of were now an angry roar of froth and fury. They swirled and pirouetted, crashing against homes and sheds, sweeping away fields of freshly planted rice. Cattle, goats, chicken and duck all swam with the fishes that night.
By the time morning came, the flood had swept away a third of the homes in Premlalwa’s village. Most of the mud and wood homes like his had crumpled against the force of the river. Sheds had vanished. Animals gone. People were missing.
But Premlalwa sat in his mud and wood hut, nestled against his wife’s warm, fleshly form. No water entered his home or his shed. Basanti slept unconcerned, and Premlalwa didn’t even hear the water as it billowed through the village, sweeping away everything in its path.
Kamodwali woke just as dawn’s first light illuminated the shack. When she saw that the child was still asleep, she marched out of her home to get the mukhiya and promptly stepped into waist-deep water. She looked out in amazement, her mouth hanging open like a fish. The waters flowed neatly around their home, as if an invisible shield surrounded the building. Not so much as a drop breached their doorway.
“What is happening?” she yelled from outside, struggling against the current. Premlalwa joined her to gape at the devastation all around them.
The waters were already receding, but there was still a strong current. Clothes, belongings, pots and pans, and the occasional chicken floated by them. All that was left of their neighbors’ homes were wooden beams and an occasional wall. The destruction had been almost total. The wet stench of fish permeated the air and from all around them, from men and women clutching pieces of driftwood, came cries of help and horror.
Premlalwa pulled Kamodwali back from the water and they went back inside the hut. The two looked at each other, their eyes wide and unblinking. Their village was gone and all that was left was their tiny hut and even tinier cowshed.
Kamodwali scratched the parting in her hair in bewilderment. She’d seen flash floods before but nothing on this scale and nothing of this absurdity. All her life, she had believed that only god could make sense of the world. Confronted with something so inexplicable, she found herself swooning. She clutched Premlalwa’s shoulder for support and wept, not for her neighbors and all that they’d lost but for herself. She had come unmoored.
“Maybe she’s not a demon,” said Premlalwa. “Maybe she’s a goddess.”
The girl-child had gotten into Premlalwa’s sack of fish. When she emerged, there were fish scales and tiny bits of fish guts clinging to her face and hair. She looked back at the couple, her black eyes staring. Kamodwali looked at the feral child, her bizarre face, her moon eyes, and shook her head.
“Do something,” she said, pushing Premlalwa in front of her.
Premlalwa waited for a seeming eternity before he began to walk slowly towards the child. She shrank away from him at first but upon his slow, careful approach, she struck her head out and sniffed him, only she had no nose and it was her neck slits that expanded and contracted. Her mouth creased and opened, as if in a smile, and she leapt at Premlalwa.
It was Premlalwa’s turn to scream. But he fell backwards and the girl-child landed on his lap. She looked up at him and then lay down, curling up like the whiskers on a catfish.
“I think she likes me,” Premlalwa smiled wanly at his wife, who stood in the doorway glaring at him.
“She is a monster, and we need to get rid of her. Why don’t you just throw her into the river?”
“I can’t. She’s just a child.”
“But she’s also a demon who will eat us. Did you see her teeth?”
“She only ate the fish.”
“But now we have no more fish and no more food. What do you think she’ll do when she gets hungry again?”
Premlalwa rose slowly, careful not to jostle the girl-child. He knew that Kamodwali was right. He might not be able to stab her, but he could just drop her into the flood waters and let her be swept away. Back to the river where she belongs.
At the doorway, as Kamodwali looked on expectantly, Premlalwa dropped the girl into the waters that still parted neatly around their home. The girl let out a gurgle as the water struck her but before she could react, the steady currents had already taken her away.
Almost immediately, the waters came rushing in. Their pots and pans, clothes and bed were soon floating on a few feet of water. Kamodwali cursed the gods and cursed Premlalwa, for this too was somehow his fault.
By evening, the waters had receded but all of their clothing and their dry food, including the rice and the dal, was ruined. The couple took a walk around the village, finding stunned neighbors everywhere. The mukhiya, who had a concrete home, had locked himself in and was not opening the doors to anyone. Dozens had gathered outside, seeking help. Most had lost everything and there was no food or water. There wasn’t even dry wood to build a fire.
Premlalwa and Kamodwali ate a packet of biscuits each. It was the only thing that the waters hadn’t washed away or ruined. That night, lying on a still-wet mattress, both Premlalwa and Kamodwali thought about the same thing.
Nestled against Premlalwa’s warm body, breathing in his familiar musk of sweat and straw, Kamodwali couldn’t stop thinking about the way the girl-child had looked at Premlalwa. She was the only one who looked that way at bearded Premlalwa, an indistinct man of indistinct means. Their marriage had been arranged, but she had come to love his quiet, understated ways. But when they sat together, her cooking and him eating, there lay a cold, empty space between them. She knew Premlalwa felt it too, but they couldn’t exorcise what they couldn’t vocalize.
Relief came the next day from the nearest municipality. Everyone got a 5 kilo sack of rice, 1 kilo of dal, cooking oil, two packets of instant noodles and two packets of biscuits. Since there was no dry wood to cook with, Premlalwa and Kamodwali ate their biscuits and their instant noodles raw.
That night, as the two tried to sleep, Basanti, the only cow remaining in the village, began to moo loudly. Premlalwa, suddenly worried, made his way to the shed. When he was half-way there, Basanti let out one sharp bleat and grew quiet. The shed door was open, and Premlalwa peered in cautiously, pointing his torch beam ahead of him. The circle of light illuminated Basanti, prostrate on the ground, her throat ripped from her body. The small, naked form of the girl-child had her head buried inside Basanti’s ample guts.
Premlalwa retched. The noodles came back up, and he stumbled out to throw up. Kamodwali found him outside the shed, weeping loudly. Inside was the girl-child, feasting.
“She came back,” mumbled Premlalwa, wiping his mouth with his gamcha. “And she ate Basanti.”
He began to weep again at the thought of Basanti, who was much more than livestock to him. She’d seen him through countless winter seasons when the water in the Baraha reduced to almost a trickle, and the only fish in the river were catfish that no one wanted to purchase. Basanti, with her soft large eyes, had been kind and giving, never complaining, never obstinate.
There was no sleep for the couple that night. With red-rimmed eyes that he regularly dabbed with his gamcha, Premlalwa kept his eye on the door, armed with a walking stick carved from an oak tree that had been struck by lightning. He had cried for hours and felt drained of something visceral, as if his insides too had been ripped as cruelly from him as they had been from Basanti. But he was tired and fell asleep a few minutes after Kamodwali nodded off.
He woke to a scream, piercingly loud in his ear. Kamodwali continued to scream as she jumped up and away, pointing to Premlalwa’s side. Nestled against his body, her arms tucked neatly under her head, was the girl-child, eyes closed and breathing deeply. Premlalwa felt her warmth radiating into his side, the soft caress of her breath as it left the sides of her neck, her matted hair, her alien face.
Premlalwa and Kamodwali had been married for fifteen years now, and they had tried countless times to have children. Most might have blamed their wives, but Premlalwa was a better man than that. He knew that he was the problem. When he was barely twelve, an errant wave had capsized his boat, and he had struck his testicles on a large rock. Premlalwa had urinated blood for close to a week but had never gone to see a doctor. The pain and the blood eventually went away, but Premlalwa always felt that something fundamental had changed about him.
The girl-child resting against him felt like something he hadn’t known was missing, even though he knew he should despise her. She had murdered and eaten the closest companion he had ever had. He wished he could bring himself to raise the walking stick and bring it down on her skull. But he wasn’t an angry man, and he had never believed in revenge. The river had taught him equanimity — the ability to accept all that happens with grace and humility. Premlalwa looked down at the sleeping girl-child and felt like he had known her all her life.
Kamodwali looked on in horror as Premlalwa put his arm around the girl and pulled her close. Her mouth, and the teeth they concealed, rested just inches from Premlalwa’s jugular. Kamodwali once again thought she would faint. She knew what she had to do.
From the shed, she brought out a shovel. While Premlalwa’s head was turned, she raised the shovel high above the sleeping child’s head and brought it down fast. But she stopped short. She couldn’t bring herself to do it either. The girl-child, as if sensing something, slowly blinked her eyes open and looked up at Kamodwali. She opened her mouth, teeth glinting, but pursed her lips, as if signaling for a kiss. A high pitched gurgle erupted from her throat as she raised her arms towards Kamodwali.
For an instance, it was as if the cold spot between Premlalwa and Kamodwali had dissipated, and they were whole, warm, and content. Kamodwali felt a shudder make its way from the base of her neck to the end of her spine.
It took a second. Kamodwali lifted the girl-child into her arms.
Arms around her neck, the child snuggled up against Kamodwali’s hair, breathing deeply from her neck.
Kamodwali smiled hesitantly as the girl-child tittered, her black eyes large and luminous.
“What will we feed her?” asked Kamodwali.
Outside, the sky began to rain fish.