Flash Fiction: Transposed Bodies
When I was seven, I was put on the overnight train from Delhi to Bombay. At the time my mother was to appear for the BA exam as an external student from Nagpur. My three-year-old sister would be staying with neighbors. I was on my way to see Kaka (Uncle) and Mavshi (Aunt), who weren’t blood relatives but were my father’s oldest, best friend and his wife.
My father requested an office subordinate who was traveling in another compartment to keep an eye on me. Whenever the train stopped at a major station, he got off the train and appeared at the window to check on me. He brought me food as well. I occupied the lower berth and an elderly Muslim couple, the only other occupants of the compartment, sat on the opposite berth. They drank fragrant cardamom coffee from a thermos.
Looking out of the glazed windows and watching the landscape whipping by, I spun reveries to the rocking movement of the train. The train thundered over a railway bridge above a vast river, and at some point, I fell asleep.
Sometime in the night, I awoke to the muffled sounds of a stopped train. All the lights were out but one. I felt panic rising. Where was I? Then I heard the couple stir. The man rose to look out of the compartment door. I sat up and gazed out of the window, too. It was a still night, and there was a darker band on the horizon, perhaps a dense jungle.
“Nothing to worry about,” they smilingly assured me, and then the train started again.
The couple shared aloo parathas with me. As I got to know them better, I began showing off. I sang songs and recited poems. I demonstrated the Kathak steps I had learned at my dance school. The man and woman looked at each other, marveling how clever I was. Pretending that I was riding bareback on a horse, I twirled a scarf like a lasso over my shoulder. They laughed and clapped their hands.
“What parent would allow such a darling little girl to travel by herself?” the man said to his wife in an undertone.
I was thrilled to hear that I was “such a darling little girl.”
“If Allah wished, we too would have been blessed—at least a girl,” the wife murmured.
* * *
When the train reached Dadar Station, Kaka was waiting on the platform. “How you’ve grown!” he said. “Mavshi and I used to take you home with us—you were just eighteen months old. Your mother was studying for the Inter Arts exam at the time.”
My mother often said that it was a pity Kaka and Mavshi had no children, because they both loved children so much. On weekends, Kaka, Mavshi, and I rode on the top of a red double-decker bus to Malabar Hill. Mavshi had combed my hair into neat braids and powdered my face. I wore a new dress and a necklace and dangling earrings, and Kaka requested passersby to take pictures of the three of us beside the topiary in the Hanging Gardens or at the entrance to the Old Woman’s Shoe (where lived the woman “who has so many children she didn’t know what to do”).
Kaka brought me a present on his way home from work every evening, and there were trips to Dadar beach. I rode a white pony that ambled on the sand. We ate pink cotton candy and kulfi and bhel puri. The sun dropped into the Arabian Sea and I shrieked and danced as warm waves and foam rolled over my ankles. At night, a mattress was unrolled in the living room, and the sounds of classical music on the radio lulled me to sleep. One by one the lights in the apartments across the lane dimmed.
Late at night a skinny kulfi seller arrived. In the cone of light from the lamppost, he seemed just a little older than me. “Kulfi Malai! Hey, hey, hey, hey, Ku-la-pi,” he called out in a booming voice.
Daji, the landlord, had a carbuncle on his forehead and walked with a cane. Sticking out his neck from the third floor balcony, he chewed out the kulfi seller for disturbing our sleep. The lad slunk away into the darkness, and the street was once again silent. Snug and safe in my bed, I felt sorry for the kulfi seller. Once a week, the metal front gate creaked, the doorbell rang, and the one-eyed magazine seller rushed into the living room. Pulling out a ledger from a satchel, he spread the magazines on the coffee table. Mavshi leafed through them and picked two.
When he did not come to Kaka’s house one day, the next door neighbor reported,” Malti, I heard his father passed away.”
“He was not his real father, did you know?” Mavshi said.
I was confused. Could one have a real father and a fake father?
My own father arrived a week later and we returned to Delhi. After my solo trip to Bombay, I felt very grown up.
* * *
When I was bored, I’d tell my three-year-old sister that she didn’t really belong to our family and that we had picked her up from the footpaths of Bombay’s Lohar Chawl. My sister ran crying to my mother, who assured her that was not the case.
My father’s friend’s grown son, Raja Uncle, stopped at our place en route to Madras. He’d just returned after a two-year stay in Germany. His patent leather shoes shone so bright that my sister stared at them fascinated and was about to poke them with a stick, when he tut-tutted and moved away. He brought us a box of German chocolates.
Later, pulling out some dresses from his suitcase to show them to us, he said, “I don’t know if these will fit my daughter.” He had not seen his wife and daughter for two years.
The girl was about my age, so I offered to model the dresses. I tried on a dark blue buttoned velvet dress and ventured, “It fits me.” I repeated that a couple of times but he paid no heed, and satisfied about the size, he put all the dresses back into his suitcase.
My father’s belt was lying around. He had just returned after playing badminton and was taking a shower. I picked up the belt and spun it fast over my head, but the buckle slipped from my grasp and clattered noisily to the floor, narrowly missing Uncle Raja.
My mother, who had been frowning at me for some time, retreated into the bedroom. “Come here,” she called out sweetly. “I want to give you something.”
Anticipating chocolates from Germany, I happily skipped into the bedroom, twirling the belt.
“Behave yourself!” my mother said and slapped me. I burst out crying, more out of humiliation than pain. Rubbing my cheek, I stared at her.
Those were the times when I wondered: While I was in Bombay, had aliens held my real father and mother captive? Had they entered their bodies and were these aliens pretending to be my parents? When I realized I had behaved badly, a thought stirred in my head: That night, when the train stopped near the jungle, had I been kidnapped? Was the real me still wandering somewhere in the jungle?
Ravibala Shenoy’s work has been published in The Chicago Quarterly Review, Best Asian Speculative Fiction, The Chicago Tribune, The Superstition Review, Copperfield Review, Jellyfish Review, The Menacing Hedge, Sugar Mule, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Funny Pearls, Commuterlit, and other journals. A long-time Chicago resident, she is a former librarian and book reviewer.
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