The atmosphere was still; except for the continuous chirping of crickets. The weather was oppressive: there had been a downpour a day before and, now, no wind at all was blowing. The trees were tranquil, perhaps, lost in their deepest thoughts. The bushes were dormant, as though meditating in order to rejuvenate. Though, intermittently, there would be a muffled sound of crackling of dry, withered leaves – that were strewn across the ground – causing a slight disturbance to these denizens of the forest. All in all, it had been a peaceful affair all along until there was a loud ‘thud’.
‘Ouch!’ Sammy cried in a high-pitched screech; her squeal echoing about the dark, desolate forest. She had tripped while trudging owing to the slippery mud. In a reflex action, she saved her back and her skull from hitting the ground by falling on her upper body on the strength of her arms so that the palms of both of her hands got scraped, and were bleeding. But it was her buttocks that were in ache the most – as she had fallen on her buttocks. Her trousers and boots were soiled. Her palms were bruised. And she was waddling.
‘Thank God, nothing happened to my torch!’ thought Sammy. A torch tied around her neck with a string kept swaying as she lurched her way back to her Uncle’s resort. She rummaged her pockets for the metallic compass that once belonged to her grandmother. She grimaced. Looking perplexed, she stared at the compass, and tried to figure out which direction she was to move. She had hinged on the compass to show her the way because a mobile phone GPS would not work inside the forest due to network connection problem. Moreover, she wanted to explore the forest in the customary jungle-trekking fashion.
Preoccupied with a train of random thoughts, Sammy flopped down under a tree and leaned against its trunk. She looked up pensively; the moonlight was peeking through the canopy of boughs and leaves. The pale moonlight fell on her face. Her heavy-lidded brown eyes sparkled. Her jet black hair merged into the darkness. Droplets of sweat on her brown skin were glistening in the light, as though her face was studded with silver pearls. And there she was: leaned against a tree trunk and swooning over the beauty of that dark, dangerous forest – plausibly, full of ferocious wild animals – absolutely oblivious of the turn that her life was about to take.
A five year old girl in a white frill frock sitting comfortably by her mother surrounded by few relatives who are complimenting her for her fair complexion and sharp facial features, her mother’s hand caressing her hair. Standing across from this scene is, another girl (about a year younger) observing – almost like a fly on the wall –and feeling unloved, lonely and left out. Someone from the huddle says: ‘The younger one is not at all pretty: dark complexion and round, flat nose.’ The scene gets sucked into blackness.
Now, the same two girls are perched on the side of a swimming pool, their feet dangling in the pool. The younger one points to something that she finds fascinating. The elder one looks uninterested and wants to leave. The younger one yanks her by the arm to stop her from leaving. A sort of scuffle ensues – arms grappling with arms – and both oscillate though remain seated. The younger one yells: ‘Go!!!’ and lets go of the other and looks away at the same thing that she had found amusing, a few seconds earlier. A moment later, she turns sideways again to look for her elder sister. But the latter is no longer there. She must have left, the younger one thinks. A sharp squeal is heard. The younger one looks down and finds her sister inside the pool grappling to stay afloat. The younger one chuckles at first. On a second thought, she gets dead scared that their mother might blame her and dislike her even more. Her heart starts to throb against her chest. In a split second, she thinks that the only way to save herself from the wrath of her mother is to make herself fall into the pool as well so as to make it look that the she was not the perpetrator in any manner. She tries to pull out the drowning girl and feigns to have fallen into the pool (which was not tough given the slippery marble floor along the poolside). Clearly, neither knew swimming. The younger one begins to sink and had nothing concrete to hold onto. So, caught in the intensity of the moment, she ends up dunking the elder one’s head under the water surface to keep herself afloat. The elder girl is immersed head to toe in the water; she struggles to breath. A couple of seconds later, they are rescued.
Muthu was busy at work. His fountain pen was gliding across the white paper sheet. The light was dim in his cabin. Once he was done writing the letter titled: ‘Reserved Forest Area’, he folded the sheet of paper thrice and stowed it inside an envelope. He scrawled something on the front side of the envelope, and he got up from his chair. He placed the envelope inside the wooden cupboard fixed on the wall over his table. He scurried into the bathroom. Hunched over the sink, he put his uniform cap aside and splashed water on his face. He unzipped his khakhi pants and tinkled the tip of this cock with one hand while the groping his balls with his other hand. He felt relaxed. He washed the semen off his hands - while hitching up his pants - and wiped his wet hands with the towel that was hung on the steel towel ring. He rumpled up his hair with his fingers while gazing in the mirror and wore the cap back on his head.
‘Excuse me, Sir!’
Muthu turned around to see two of his subordinates holding a girl by the arms, while the girl was trying vigorously to release herself from their grip. All of them were gasping.
‘What’s the matter,’ Muthu asked, looking puzzled.
‘Sir,’ one of the Forest Beat officers took a deep breath and spluttered in their vernacular language, ‘This girl was lurking in the periphery towards the North-East.’
Sammy did not understand a word, but she could guess the meaning of what he said. Sammy glanced at the tall, dark-complexioned young man in uniform who was, quite apparently, the superior of the two men (also donning the uniform); though different from that of their “boss”.
The tall man uttered something in Odia, and the two officers let go of Sammy.
‘Madam, who are you? Why were you lurking in the forest?’ Muthu asked sternly in his Odia accented English.
‘Well…’ Sammy began mouthing the words.
Muthu exchanged looks with his two subordinates. Sammy, meanwhile, was busy racking her brains for coming up with a good explanation for her meandering about the dense forest at dead of night.
‘Could I talk to you in private?’ Sammy requested glibly.
Muthu smirked and beckoned the two officers to leave.
‘I was walking my dog down the main road,’ Sammy jabbered in a state of trepidation, ‘I was in such a good mood: firstly, because it was my favourite singer’s birthday and secondly, my servant earlier today called up to tell that back home my Silky had…’
‘Silky, who?’ he interrupted.
‘Silky, my cat, had delivered kit…’
‘Madam,’ he said impatiently, ‘Would you mind cutting the long story short?’
‘Alright,’ she pursed her lips and rolled up her eyes, ‘I was strolling. Suddenly, my dog began tugging at its leash vigourously. It was growling like crazy. It began running helter-skelter. And before I knew it, the leash had slipped from my grasp. He sped fast and swerved around the corner of the long winding road and into the woods,’ she rattled off almost like a tape recorder.
‘What’s the breed of your dog, again?’ he asked solemnly.
‘But, just now, you said it was a pug?’ he raised his eyebrow.
‘Did I? I don’t think so. I never mentioned the breed before,’ she said calmly.
He sneered. She shrugged.
A brief silence
‘You are a tourist, aren’t you?’ Muthu said rhetorically.
‘You people, you come here to see the greenery, the rivers and lakes, the ridges, the mangroves and the orchards. And you have zero regard for their beauty. You litter them with chips packets, soda cans, soft drink bottles scattered across the banks of rivers or the peripheral area of the forest adjacent to the main road. On top of that, these resorts and hotels are wreaking havoc by mushrooming illegally on the forest land shrinking our rivers and lakes,’ he ranted for about a minute or so.
Sammy was indignant; she could not believe that he had the audacity to harangue her on something as basic as environmental degradation. She was furious. But before she could say anything, he had gotten a first aid box out of his cupboard and was applying anti-septic on her palms with a wisp of cotton. She could feel his fingers flitting across her wrist; the tips touching the back of her hand tenderly. When the droplets trickled into the abrasions on her palm, she winced. She looked up at his face, while he was intently doing the first-aid. He had a long, scrawny face with a prominent jaw line and a sharp nose. He must be in his late twenties, she thought. In that moment, she felt drawn to him.
Over the next weeks, there were many trysts comprising: chatting, playful wrestling and love-making. Sammy and Muthu would go on long walks down the main road late at night holding hands when, mostly, everyone would be asleep. Sammy would sneak out of her Uncle’s resort wearing tank top over hot pants draped in a shawl drawn close to her face. It was one such night. The black sky was studded with sparkling silver stars. The pole star twinkled in the north. Cool breeze was blowing. The mud was cool. A wedge of moonlight shone on Sammy’s countenance through the gap between the branches of a large teak tree as she and Muthu laid next to each other on the cool, soft mud at some distance away from Muthu’s cabin, gazing the dazzling constellations in the clear night sky and laughing at Muthu’s jokes; the cicadas chirruped in the background under the full moon sky.
‘I always knew that your dog story was a cock and bull story,’ Muthu whispered in Sammy’s ear and guffawed.
Sammy turned to face Muthu with the left side of her face resting in her palm, propped up on her left elbow.
‘Not possible,’ she mocked him and asked, ‘How?’
‘That was easy. You referred to your cat as ‘my Silky’ which showed your love towards your cat that you wouldn’t even refer to it as an animal. On the other hand, you called your so called pet dog as ‘my dog’. A dog lover would never do that.’
Sammy giggled and gave him a sensuous look. She unbuttoned the topmost button of his shirt and ran her fingers across his chest pinching his left nipple slightly with her long nails. He slid his left hand between her legs and pressed her crotch with it.
The next morning Sammy woke up in good season. Her Uncle was out of town. She dressed up in a halter top and hot pants and made a beeline for the beach. Her face got lit up when she saw Muthu rushing towards her, wearing casuals. Holding hands under the clear blue sky, both of them padded on the sparkling white sand. Just for fun, Muthu shoved Sammy towards the gleaming sea surface. The sea was stormy. The sand was slippery. A tidal wave crashed on the shoreline and swept her feet off the shore. In a split second, Sammy was under the water. Her face felt the slaps of gushing water. Her body got paralyzed. She didn’t even try to swim. Before she knew, water had gushed into her nostrils and choked her wind pipe. On the shore, Muthu was laughing and amidst the peals of his laughter, the words: ‘Oh, come on! Come out now’ could be heard trailing away against the roaring of waves.
‘Tanya…Tanya…’ Sammy was standing by a bed and calling out her sister’s name in her quavering voice. She was wearing a white sleeveless frock with polka dots. She was looking at her sister who was lying in the bed, trembling nervously. Her sister had a piece of cloth placed across her forehead and a blanket pulled over her scraggy body. Her eyes were welling up. Then the scene was engulfed by darkness. There was water reflecting the blue colour of the sky. The water surface was tranquil and un-rippled. Suddenly, there were ripples. A small, scrawny arm with tiny fingers emerged, and the air was filled with the squeals and the yelps like those of a lamb being slaughtered. Another child was the onlooker. A closer look revealed that the face under the water was Sammy‘s. ‘Sammy…Sammy, are you fine?’ Muthu was yelling when Sammy opened her eyes. There was a pair of doe’s eyes in her face. Sammy grimaced, sat herself up and began retching.
‘Hey, how are you now? What happened to you, today?’ Sammy received a text from Muthu, later in the night. Sammy was seething with anger.
Sammy replied: ‘You are asking me that! Really! You only had pushed me into the sea.’
There was a beep.
‘I was just playing a harmless prank. Just for fun! If you cannot swim in knee-deep water, then that’s absolutely your own fault. Don’t you dare blame me, okay?’
Sammy replied: ‘Knee-deep? I was inside the water from head to toe until a local tribal man rescued me. You didn’t even try to save me, and on top of all that, you are blaming me!’
‘I thought you were just playing along. Before I could realize that gravity of the situation, the man had already saved you. And if you still believe that it was my fault, it will be good for both of us that we break up. It’s over between us.’
Sammy’s heart skipped a beat. She felt something tugging at her heart. Her hand clutching the mobile was shivering. She immediately called him up. She rang up twice, but he didn’t take her call. The third time, he did. With tears streaming down her face, she told him everything about her sister’s death at the early age of five amidst intermittent sobs. She told him how it all came back to her when she was underwater.
A week later, she gritted her teeth to step out – after having reeled under the excruciating pain of the memories of her dark past and an interminable flurry of suicidal thoughts continuously for days, hours, minutes and seconds – and stroll down the main road for fresh air. Her hair was unkempt. There were dark circles under her eyes. Deep down, there was no sign of anguish anymore. Her eyes were parched. A sense of emptiness and futility was dispersed across her soul.
‘Could I use your mobile once? I need to make an urgent call. My network is out,’ asked a short, stocky woman with a freckled face at the reception, looking anxious.
‘Sure,’ Sammy replied earnestly.
Sammy overheard a snippet, got alarmed and eavesdropped on the rest of the conversation of that woman on the phone.
‘Limestone mining in a reserved forest area… karst ecosystem will be disrupted… tribals will lose their home...catastrophic…A news story for you…I hope to see you here soon,’ the lady said and hung up.
Sammy was loitering about, when her eyes fell on something in the bushes- those familiar doe eyes. She whisked the bushes away nimbly and found those two doe eyes in the face of a little girl (about six or so). With her skin as magnificent as the dusk sky and an oval face, she was peeping through the overgrown wild bushes a moment earlier. Just as she realized that Sammy was beside her, she flinched and began to retreat. She was draped in a saree sans the blouse. Her hair was tied in a bun, and there was a metallic ring dangling from her nasal septum. She was so gaunt that her collar bones looked clearly demarcated form above the frayed edges of the pallu of her grimy saree. Sammy gesticulated at her to stop and beamed at her to convey that there was nothing to be afraid of. The girl smiled back. A pair of her incisors in the upper jaw had fallen out. Though they could not understand each other’s language, but, as they say, love has its own language, they bonded almost instantly. Sammy made funny faces at her, and the little thing just giggled and giggled.
In the days that followed, Sammy met the girl daily at the same spot. Sammy began calling her Doey as she had eyes like those of a doe. They would skim stones in the brook and chortle watching the ripples emerge. Doey taught Sammy how to climb trees, to row a boat and to break bael fruits right from the tree using a slingshot. Sammy would plait Doey’s hair and put flowers in them. Both of them would watch birds in the evening; all kinds of birds – a scarlet Red munia flapping its black plumage sprayed with white flitting about, the black-blue plumaged, yellow ochre breasted Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher holding a flat toad in its coral red bill and the ink-blue Indian Robin foraging for insects crawling in the muddy.
Sammy realized quite a few things: it was Doey’s father who had saved her life the other day; Doey lived in a bamboo hut near the brook along with others of her clan; and Doey’s father used to ferry tourists across the brook to the limestone caves in lieu of grains and other edible items from a local guide. Lately though, in the past couple days, his boat stood anchored to a tree near his hut. And Doey was nowhere to be seen. Sammy sensed something fishy and remembered the conversation of the woman at the reception and went to see Muthu to discuss with him.
Sammy had to wait for fifteen minutes as Muthu was in a meeting. Just as she saw a man – a bald man dressed in an expensive suit– leave his cabin, she hurried into the cabin. Muthu kissed her on the lips. She tried telling him about what she had heard the woman talk on the phone days back and about Doey and her father.
‘Baby, this is all a figment of your imagination. We call such activists: urban naxals,’ he smirked, ‘They are just nuisance, nothing else.’ He began cuddling her on the neck.
‘Muthu,’ Sammy broached it again and flicked his mouth off her neck.
Muthu was livid. ‘Why can’t… let me get this straight, you sister is dead. You are going crazier by each day. Stop hanging out with that uncouth, barbarian girl! That girl is not your dead sister, for God’s sake. This all is in your mind,’ he shot back.
Was Muthu right? Was the emotional attachment that she had with Doey because she saw her own sister in her; a sister in whose blood Sammy’s hands were dipped? Was she going insane? Such thoughts kept penetrating Sammy’s mind all along the way up to the main road until a hand patted her on the shoulder.
‘Hello, remember me?’ asked a woman.
‘Yeah, of course, you borrowed my mobile sometime back,’ Sammy replied.
‘My name is Meghna.’
‘Hello, I’m Sammy, actually Sameera. But everyone calls me Sammy.’
Sammy scanned through the placards that the woman was clutching in her hands.
‘What are these?’ Sammy asked, looking curious.
‘Oh, these, these are a few placards meant for the demonstration that my civil society pals and I are organizing against the grant of the contract for limestone mining to a company despite the area being ecologically fragile. This will cause forest depletion, soil erosion and groundwater degradation. In hilly areas, where I have been to, people usually harvest rainwater. But ever since the contamination of water due to the dust emanating from limestone mining operations, this practice declined drastically. Besides, those poor tribals by the brook will lose their abode that they had been living in since ages. I pity them,’ Meghna explained patiently. ‘Have you noticed any bald man lurking around the limestone caves?’ she continued (without waiting for the answer), ‘He works for that company. Sometimes, I feel, colonizers left our country but colonialism never did.’
The Short Story continues here