‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Pema Tsering tells a Story

  first impressions
  Vol VI : issue 3

  Jayant Sankrityayana
  Kaushik Basu
  Altaf Tyrewala
  Shilpa Paralkar
  Parismita Singh
  Only in Print
  New Writing Award
  Current Issue


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Parismita Singh

Ink on paper by PARISMITA SINGH

“This birthday, love,

I will tell you a story

Because unlike the body that,

Sated, you will cast aside

Or a cup of chang

That will pass unto other lips

A story will cost me nothing,

You even less,

Help us pass the time waiting for the kettle to boil

Lighten the gloom of this winter evening.”

And taking a deep breath, Pema Tsering began the biggest story of her life. But before her story, came other things.

When Pema’s husband left her after only two years of marriage, the village hummed with talk; but when they continued to maintain cordial relations — not a single harsh word ever escaping her lips — they marvelled. For it was true that Keising still spent the odd evening at her home and they sipped chang and gossiped together like old friends. Even the taste of new skin, they sniggered, could not get the taste of her brewed liquor out of his mouth. Perhaps. Though it could not have been the whole truth.

If Keising had remained married to Pema, their love would have been sung for years to come at the village festival. It had been the unlikeliest of love matches, the kind that make people chuckle as the story is narrated around the kitchen fire in unknown hearths. She came from a village in the southern hills and Keising had merely been passing through on his way to another, but he caught a glimpse of her working in the fields and set his heart on marrying her.

They belonged to different tribes — did not so much as speak the same language — and she happened to be the daughter of the much-feared shaman, the village healer and holy man. Along with dry maize cobs hung the most hideous ceremonial headdress of mithun horns, boar’s teeth and feathers from the roof of his beloved’s home, making even the elders cautious in their dealings with the old man. It would’ve been enough to put off a lesser man, but not Keising who, in his lover’s wisdom, left the old man alone and worked on the daughter instead. He courted her with wildflowers and songs and little gifts, till she eventually relented and approached her father herself.

They killed three mithuns at the wedding. Keising was a brilliant dancer and he whirled her round and round. It was truly perfect, everyone agreed.

Where she came from, girls often married into neighbouring villages, sometimes the same one. So childhood friends stayed together through motherhood and old age. But Pema married far away. It took three days of travelling to reach her village. That had worried her in the beginning but Keising had always been by her side, helping her learn the language and the cooking, setting up a small rice liquor shop in the house, unlike some of the other husbands who either lay drunk all day long or spent all their time in local politics, barely glancing at their wives or children. But now, she realised that he had played the good husband too long. It had tired him.

Better to cut off all contact, sometimes it is less painful that way — her husband had suggested in his usual thoughtful manner (he was always the most gentle, thoughtful of men) careful not to cause more hurt than was necessary. She did not want to ever see his face again — she would find someone stronger, better, she would live alone and so on — she had spat out the words, the spurned wife. But even then, she knew that anger had given her a strength that she did not possess.

When the fit of fury passed, she was left with nothing but a vast emptiness in her soul. It was late afternoon but the thick fog had given it a white, neutral calm. All the landmarks had vanished — the neighbour’s house further uphill and their goats, the workers who rested in the curve of the road — everything except disembodied tree trunks looming out of the whiteness and the sound of the stream raging downhill. They did not strike fear into her heart as they usually did. Today, what she feared more than anything else was the empty house — the smell of chang in the kitchen, the lighting of the lamps — everything that was regular and had suddenly become estranged.

She sat outside for a long, long time.

But slowly, she began to work on her reserves, fell back on childhood lessons. Like all children who grew up in these villages on lamplight surrounded by the darkness of forests, she had imbibed fear from an early age — fear was a sign of respect for the unknown, the darkness, that which one did not understand. Walking the forest paths at night, by the bamboo groves and water pools, snakes and wolves and ferns, fear was necessary, her father had explained. But in his wisdom, he had also taught his six children that for every poison, malevolent spirit or sin, for every fear there was its other — its antidote. When poisoned by the aconite leaf, often you have to go no further than its root to counter it. A charm, prayer, root or leaf — it was out there somewhere — you had to find it.

And so, Pema Tsering began her search. You could see her every morning, lugging water from the stream for the steel pots that boiled on the fire. She worked hard, buying sackfuls of rice from the co-operative in the town, cooking it and fermenting it in plastic buckets. The days she made roxi, it was more difficult. The alcohol needed to be distilled perfectly to produce the leaden mercury rush to the brain at the first sip.

The cauldron in her courtyard boiled all morning and passers-by could glimpse the strength in her fair arms as she hauled one tub of water after another, or cajoled the logs of wood in her stove. Doing both a man and a woman’s job, as a woman without a husband must.

The most unlikely customers were compelled to a rest and a drink at the sight of her familiar figure. All this while, her mind was working away, on another plane. So that even when she sat down to pour a customer a drink, she barely heard her neighbour’s voice telling how so-and-so was caught sleeping with a lama by her husband or that the Bhutanese lady’s youngest son was sick with a black magic. Once, the Nepali woman who dropped by for a glass of roxi had suggested a priest in the next village who was known to be of help in domestic matters — problems between couples, she had hinted discreetly.

But Pema had blushed deeply at this reference to her personal troubles and brushed it aside. She abruptly ended the conversation and stood up to serve another customer. She could not bear to open her heart to anyone else. Never for a moment did she consider going back to her village or confiding in anyone. It irritated her. Word must have got around and nobody ever offered her any help again. And all she thought about, day and night, was her antidote. Keising dropped by sometimes — for a cup of chang — to ask if she needed money. Those evenings, she rested content from his simply being there, sitting on a wooden stool in her kitchen. After some time, she reared up the courage to ask him about his new wife.

She felt this was somehow important.

To her surprise, he spoke readily, with the bashfulness of a young bridegroom, his eyes shining when he took her name. There was no remorse. She had not expected it and yet it surprised her, his candour, the ease with which he had negated her earlier role from his life, accepted her in this new one — for this was an acceptable question from the mistress of a chang shop.

She listened to him talk of her. She was testing herself. She was glad she had felt nothing.

Yet that night, after the cat upset a vessel in the kitchen, she lay awake caressing the two taut lines that stretched under the skin of her wrist, absently marking out the direction of the slit. And she thought of her father. A being can do that sometimes, her father had said once, let their bodies shut off, slowly stop breathing, elephants and birds can. They do it by the thousands at times, flying in unison against a hill or off a cliff. We all carry death within ourselves, but some people can do it. While others have the dung fly instinct to live. No despair is deep enough. They will eat dung to survive.

Sometimes, it maddens me, he had said, it being so easy… He had smiled and used a metaphor most unusual for him, who rarely ventured into town. But the visit to the cinema hall had left a most powerful impression on him. Like the illuminated exit  sign in the darkness of the theatre — always enticing.

And with the fond weakness of a father, he had inoculated his daughters with a strong dose of the dung fly instinct. None ever faltered.

Pema knew this, yet she had lain all that night, tenderly caressing the delicate lines shining green beneath her skin.

And so the days went by and then the months — the autumn months gave way to winter. The liquor business was good. Maybe next spring she would open a small shop, too. And yet, something was not right. Her whole being seemed to have withdrawn, curled fetally against the world and around her antidote. And then one morning, she knew she was ready. In fact, she thought, not without a little satisfaction, she would be ready by his birthday.

p. 1 p. 2

Parismita Singh is a Sarai Independent Fellow and is working on a comic book. She lives in Delhi and Assam.
This is her first published story (2004)