This short story was first published in The Alembic in 2014.
“Ma, Ma, you know Baapuji is bringing me a tractor today.” Inder had been reminding his mother since dusk that Jagtar Singh had gone to the city. The fire in the round, earthen chulla was disappearing little by little, but Preetam Kaur’s dark eyes stare into it without a single notice. “Ma, Ma, when’s Baapuji coming?” This time, Inder nudged his mother’s shoulder with his delicate long hands.
“Your Baapuji will be home soon, now go, I think Baba Ji is calling you.” Sending Inder off, she blew gently at the embers, letting the resulting smoke hide the fear in her waiting eyes. Her hair was pulled back into a long braid with small tendrils framing her wheat-colored oval face. She shouldn’t have let him go today; since the ‘84 attacks in Amritsar ten years ago, every turbaned man’s life had become a game of cat and mouse. The police roamed the streets looking for promotion opportunities. Every Sikh killed was a star of recognition and a generous bonus. Preetam Kaur prayed for her husband, her son, and her father-in-law.
Blowing gently into the chulla again, she prayed whisperingly, “Please, Waheguru, protect him. You took my brother already, don’t take anyone else. But then again, You are supreme.” Gathering up her religious teachings for strength, she recited with an iron-like voice:
Kartaa tu sabhna ka soee.
You are the Master of all.
If a powerful person strikes his equal,
Nothing is lost and nobody is hurt.
But if a dominant tiger attacks a flock of sheep and kills them,
Then the master must answer for it.
This priceless country has been defiled by dogs,
The dead are ignored.
With another blow from her parched lips, the fire came back to life and started refreshing the sugary smell of cooking carrots. Preetam Kaur swung the end of her chunni over her shoulder, keys clanking like ankle bells against her wiry back. “Baba Ji,” she called her father-in-law. He was aged, but robust and still very strong from all his years spent farming.
“What is it Puttar?” he asked running his long fingers through his chest-length gray beard. His turban was gray like his kurta pajama, the color he had adopted after handing over the responsibility of the land to his son; he called it his official retirement color.
“Baba Ji, should I start making roti? You and Inder can eat, who knows when his father will come.” Her voice, although controlled, hints at her suppressed fear.
“Don’t worry Puttar, Jagtar is probably on his way home right now, we’ll all eat together. Rest for now, you need it.” He patted her head in reassurance and sat down on the worn-out charpoy that adorned their courtyard. “But your fear is understandable as well. After what happened to your brother, anybody would be afraid. Especially in the atmosphere that the government has created. Daily fake encounters, disappearances of young boys and men; the police is worse than the activists they target. Those who these police officers call terrorists are at least fighting for a cause. These police dogs have just made a game of everything. Waheguru bless them.”
“Baba Ji, can I go on the roof? Maybe Baapuji’s coming?” Inder had climbed onto the charpoy with his grandfather and seemed to be catching the contagious sense of fear and anxiety from his mother and grandfather.
“Go Puttar, but come back down in a few minutes. Your Ma’s going to make roti soon, you like carrots don’t you?” Inder seemed to hear only the words of permission. He went flying up the cement ladder. Even though the bun on his head was wrapped in a mini-turban, his dark brown hair peeked out playfully from the bottom. Everybody in the village said that he was a carbon copy of his father, minus the beard and mustache. His six-year-old eyes however, were not like either of his parents. They were brightly brown and young of course, but they were also oblivious to everything. It was with this obliviousness that he looked out to the dirt road. Their house was at a slight distance from the rest of the village; isolated, but still close enough to other houses if anything were to happen.
A quarter of a mile down the path, Inder could see a figure in a dirt-colored kurta-pajama and orange turban, walking quickly, burlap sack slung over his shoulder, and face turning every now and then to check his surroundings. Inder’s mouth immediately turned into a beaming smile, showing a set of perfect baby teeth. “Ma, Baba Ji,” he called, “Baapuji is coming.”
Downstairs, Inder’s mother and grandfather both let out sighs of relief while Inder began calculating where in the sack his tractor would be. Baapuji always brought home soap, oil, salt, sugar, tea and other stuff for Ma to use in the kitchen. But Inder knew that this time, his shiny new tractor would be on the very top in his Baapuji’s sack. Turning his face towards the stairs, he called out again to remind them that his father was coming.
“Chal Puttar, go ahead and make roti now. We’ll all eat together.” Preetam Kaur nodded her head and resumed with her rhythmic movements in the kitchen. She was relieved, but there was still a fear tugging at her heart, which she kept trying to block out from her mind. After worrying nonstop for twelve hours, she was now forcing herself to stop.
“Ma!” she heard Inder’s shrill scream. she ignored it thinking he must have hurt himself running down the stairs again. He screamed again. “Ma, there’s a police jeep coming too!” Preetam Kaur’s hands froze and eyes opened up to the fear she had been ignoring. Dropping the dough in her hand, she rushed up the stairs, her father-in-law rushed out the door immediately. She could see her husband running, with the Jeep following behind at a faster speed. There was a cracking sound and she saw her husband stumble down, sack falling out of his hands. The jeep was now right behind him and stopped abruptly as the police officers jump out. There were three of them in khaki green uniforms. They circled Jagtar Singh and Preetam Kaur could no longer see what was happening. “Inder, you stay here, I’ll be back.” Barefoot, she ran downstairs and out the same door her father-in-law had just gone. As she ran, her chunni slipped from her head and trailed behind her, keys weighing it down so that it still clung to her body.
Her father-in-law had already reached the spot where Jagtar Singh had fallen. “Where are they? Where is Inder’s Baapuji?” she asked him, out of breath and panting.
“Go back home, I’m going to the police station.”
“Baba Ji,” she wanted to protest and ask him what happened, but his glare cut her off. Without another word, he turned around and walked off in the direction of the police station.
Seeing the sack and its contents scattered, Preetam Kaur couldn’t control the tears she had stopped for so long. She sobbed and let the tears roll down.
“Ma, why did the police take Baapuji?” Hearing her son’s voice, Preetam Kaur quickly wiped her face before turning around. “The police only takes bad people, Baapuji is good.” There was a naivety in his questions that made her heart ache even more.
“Don’t you want to see what Baapuji brought for you?” Absent-mindedly, she beganlooking through the groceries. “Look Inder, here’s your tractor,” she said, holding out the toy tractor her son had been asking for all year. She wanted to ask God if this is a price a child must pay for a small toy. There was a volcano of emotions building up in her that she wanted to release, but there was Inder to think about.
“Why did they take Baapuji?” She could see that he would cry soon. “Tell me Ma. Is it because I was bad?”
“No Inder, you’re a good child, my beeba bacha.”
“Is it because of the tractor? I promise I don’t want it anymore. I’ll tell the police man that I don’t want the tractor. I’ll be good. Ma, I promise I won’t ask for anything never ever again.” He was crying now, refusing to even bring his hands near the tractor.
“No Puttar, you’re good. Your Baapuji didn’t do anything, nobody did. Now, don’t cry, Baba Ji went to bring Baapuji back. They’ll be back before you know it.” She wiped his face with a trembling hand and tried to give the tractor to Inder with the other hand. With terror and anger on his face, he slapped the tractor out of Preetam Kaur’s hand and began running towards where Baba Ji had gone.
“Inder, stop!” she called after him.
“No, I’m going to tell them to take me. I asked for the tractor. Baapuji didn’t do anything.” He was screaming, crying, and running quickly away from his mother. Preetam Kaur chased after him.
Finally getting a hold of Inder, she picked him up and his screams got even louder. Hugging him tight as he struggled, she hoped that his tender body would make her own pain bearable, but it only increased with each step she took towards home.
Each thorn and pebble on the dirt road made its presence felt now, when Preetam Kaur’s feet were more naked and unstable than they’d ever been
* * *
Baba Ji came home that night after making rounds of the various police stations in the area, without any luck. Each police officer he’d met throughout the day seemed to have been there only to put salt on his wounds. The next morning, he took his brother’s son with him to the city police station. Not finding Jagtar Singh there, they went to next city and the villages surrounding it. No report was written anywhere, no information was revealed, instead, they were repeatedly referred to a bigger police station in a bigger city.
The house’s quiet was no longer calm, but filled with the deafening sound of betrayal. Inder was silent, Baba Ji was constantly looking for news of his son, and Preetam Kaur held everything together. She and her husband had done this job together before, but now she was a loose thread of a run-down quilt.
* * *
“Inder, go back to college, you have to start thinking about your future. You’ll have your own family one day, how will you feed them?” Preetam Kaur has started the never-concluding argument with her son again. “You’re twenty-three now; you need to get serious about life. Is this what your Baapuji would have wanted?”
“Ma, I don’t know what Baapuji would have wanted. But my destiny is somewhere else, I know it.”
“Your destiny is to work like this all your life? Fourteen hours of work and a minimum wage check? That fate is for people like me, not you Inder, not you.” Inder doesn’t argue and Preetam Kaur knows that he won’t say anything for a while. He wants to go back to India, alone, permanently. She feels her own desperation, but at the same time, she can understand the desperation that is in her son.
Her face has gained several wrinkles over the years and gray highlights outnumber the original black hair she once had. Inder is taller now, has a young, raven-black beard surrounding his face, just like his father. And there’s a frown that refuses to leave even when he smiles. Preetam Kaur searches for her child in his face, but he’s no longer her child. She knows where she lost him, but can never get him back.