Seven Nights of Longing
The First Night
‘Brother, I’m thirsty. Will you get me some water? It doesn’t have to be cold.’
He gets up, tiptoes over dozens of sleeping people, and into the darkness, he vanishes. He returns instantly, empty-handed.
‘Can you wait until dawn. Fresh water will be pumped in the morning.’
‘Brother, what are these marks on my hands and feet? Wrap me in a sheet, please?’
‘But it’s hot as hell here, darling. It must be 45 degrees.’
I look at my watch again. The hour hand points at 3. Struggling to climb any further, the minute hand is trembling. My thirst is unbearable. I get up and walk towards the makeshift kitchen at the other end of the dormitory. A shadow follows me. I lift the lids off the two earthen pots. The pots are empty but smelly. The tap is dry. My brother is right. Dawn is only an hour away.
The Second Night
The old man is sobbing. He can’t bear the taunts of his grandson.
‘Your wife is dying,’ the grandson blurts into his ear.
‘What?’ cries the hard-of-hearing old man.
‘Your wife is being beaten. She won’t survive the night. Look over there, how she cries like a child!’
The old man gives out a feeble cry. I want the act to stop. I pretend to be asleep. I bury my head deep inside the rugged blanket. My mother’s shawl is my pillow. The hour and the minute hands of my watch haven’t moved since I last looked at them. Time lingers on. Outside, the cow moos. She’s trying to keep her new-born calf alive. She doesn’t leave its side even when it’s not there. The place is sacred to her. The old man closes his eyes. His head is reclined against the wall. A tear has stained his sunken cheek. A smile has come to settle on his cracked lips. The rash on his nape has turned ashen. He’s quiet at last.
The Third Night
A centipede is crawling on a woman’s neck. It’s headed straight for her ear. The woman is asleep. If the centipede enters her ear, it will lay an egg there. The egg will hatch and a centipede will be born inside. It won’t come out. The woman will lose her hearing. She will die of pain. The centipede shouldn’t get inside her ear. I would have picked it and thrown it away, but I’m afraid of centipedes. They are vengeful insects. They take revenge by crawling into your ears and laying eggs in them. It is 3 a.m. The shadow has multiplied. When will it stop hounding me? When will the sun rise? When will the cow moo? One more hour and the centipede will go away.
The Fourth Night
Strange sounds of touch and licking are heard. Hushed whispers of a man and a woman!
Woman: Don’t do that.
Man: One last time.
Man: I’m dying.
Woman: So am I.
Man: I beg you.
Woman: You are killing me.
Man. How can I? I am your servant.
Woman. Spare me. There are people around.
Man: No one will notice.
Woman: The little girl is awake.
Man: Just let me place my hand there.
Woman: Do what you wish. I hope I die tonight.
The Fifth Night
I smell the woman’s touch. She gives me a kiss, leaving an earthy smell on my cheek. She’s dreaming at last. Her dreams are my reality. My dreams are her reality. Time changes hands. I miss the old man. I wonder where he is. What must they have done to him? His spit stains are all over the mattress. His laughter and weeping still echo off the walls. His reflection is still trapped in the broken mirror. His absence is more horrifying than his presence. It has turned me into his equal.
What the day gives, the night takes. Night is a grindstone. It grinds everything that passes through it. Even dreams. I long for the night to bring me the light of a distant star. The moon is watching everything. I wonder what she sees and hears.
The Sixth Night
Rain is lashing against the roof. Water trickles off the walls of the barn. It enters the hall and brings the smell of dung. The cow hasn’t mooed tonight. The shadow has started to tremble. I want to drink rainwater just like I wanted to eat snow the night I came here. But I’m not thirsty tonight. One more dream before the light breaks.
The Seventh Night
I’m writing to you because I’m not able to talk to you. Don’t read this letter now. Read it when I’m gone. Someone keeps looking at me all the time. When I’m washing my clothes at the canal. When I’m fetching water from the well. When I’m asleep. When I’m putting on clothes. When I’m alone in the hall. Maybe the watcher is just an apparition. Maybe the shadow has come off the wall to take me away. Maybe I’m hallucinating. But the gaze marks on my body are real. How do I make the marks vanish?
Night after night, the same dream invades my sleep. I can’t utter what I see and hear. It’s a curse. When will the dream end?
Tomorrow, one more day will be put to death. Yet, no one will mourn the passing of days. Yama will come for me to feast upon my bones. What will I offer when I have nothing left to offer?
My yesterday is my tomorrow. What if it doesn’t return?
I will stop now. The night is endless. The sky is lava. A boat is sailing up in the sky. There are no sails. There’s no boatman. A little boy is searching for a place to sit. He gives me his only smile.
Your loving sister,
Siddhartha Gigoo’s books are The Garden of Solitude, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories (longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2015), A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits (co-edited), Once We Had Everything (Literature in Exile) (co-edited) and Mehr (A Love Story). In 2015, he won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for his short story The Umbrella Man. His story, The Christmas Dinner, received an honorable mention in the 38th Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition 2018. He’s also been longlisted for Royal Society of Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize 2018.
Siddhartha’s short films, The Last Day and Goodbye, Mayfly, have won several awards at International Film Festivals. His writings appear in several literary journals.
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Image: Amrita Sher-Gil Public Domain