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And then, they would be back to Delhi, back to Dev. She wasn’t sure how she’d lay out her truth yet.

New Delhi |
December 29, 2019 6:01:24 am
New Year, New Year 2020, celebrations, fiction special, Eye 2019, Sunday Eye, Indian Express news Kushtaka (Source: Getty/Thinkstock)

By Rheea Mukherjee

The American is talking to her daughter. Sacchi, twirling a blade of grass in her fingers, bumbles around him. The mountains look too perfect behind them, but that’s only because Durga hasn’t spent enough time outside dying Indian cities.

She stands on the wooden porch of the guest home, her hands on her waist. She can’t decide whether she wants to get into the intricacies of striking a conversation with the American. Sacchi makes the decision for her. A high-pitch twang hits the air, she screams theatrically. “Mama! Listen to this story, it’s too scary.”

The American turns his head. His khaki shorts cut at his knees. Durga averts eye contact; instead, she looks at the hair on his legs, golden blond, shimmering for the sun. She pulls the ends of her maroon wool sweater and walks casually towards the grass.

“Andy,” the man offers his hand. His accent just as American as she thought she’d heard when he was checking in. He stands up, brushes the green stains off his knees. He tells Durga he was sharing an Alaskan myth. “She swore the scary stuff didn’t frighten her.”

“That’s actually true,” Durga says. The American looks surprised at her answer. He must be used to mollycoddling paranoia most mothers seem to possess these days, Durga assumes. Sacchi is chanting something. Kus…Kush…Kus…

The American leaps playfully, contorts his face and yells “KUSHTAKA!” Sacchi runs in circles screaming. Kushtaka, Kushtaka, Kushtaka.
The American asks if they come to Dharamshala often. It’s their first time, she tells him, a short break to get away from the air crisis in Delhi. Durga takes a good look at the man, he looks like the gentle backpacker type, one who has many tales from many countries. A man who might settle down in Silicon Valley after he was all done finding himself.

“What is Kushtaka?” She finds herself asking, slipping slowly into the unknown boundaries of stranger conversation.

Sacchi picks herself from the grass and shrieks. “Mama, I will tell, Mama, I will tell.” The American waves his hands in the crispness of the air, encouraging her to go on. Sacchi talks about a tribe, she calls it klingkit. The American tells her it’s spelled Tlingit.

“Mama, the tribe comes from Alaska, and they know how evil the Kushtaka can be. He is half otter and half man and he can make you into a Kushtaka, too. He can also shred you into pieces!”

The American twitches, worried Durga would think the last part was a tad too violent. Durga smiles at the man. “She can watch horror movies back to back, and go off to sleep peacefully, she is one of a kind.”

The man asks her if she’s seen the old lady sitting in the corner of the guesthouse porch. Durga nods. She had assumed it was a relative of the innkeeper because she had seen him bring her to the bamboo rocking chair. The old lady wore a robe and a red shawl, her face rippled in wrinkles. Earlier, she had looked at the woman, offering a smile but the woman had looked back passively, her eyes offering only quiet stoicism.

“I tried talking to her, but she didn’t say anything,” the American says.

Americans try to talk to everyone, Durga thinks; it’s part of their worldview, their right to clarity and information. She looks at her daughter; technically, Sacchi was American too, born in Charlotte, North Carolina. Durga’s husband was an engineer and Durga was finishing her Master’s in Mathematics. They had moved back to Delhi when Sacchi was six months old. Durga slides her hand down her stomach. An ache threatens to stab her body. Briefly, she thinks of her husband. She pictures him at home brushing his teeth, staring blankly into the mirror.

“I was headed to the temple complex today, would you like to tag with me?”

Durga smiles. “Why not?” she says. Dharamshala was the kind of place where strangers trusted each other. She tells the man they will meet him in 5 minutes, she has to grab her bag. Sacchi refuses to budge, she confidently holds the man’s hand. Hurry up Mama, we have a lot to see today.

Durga walks quickly back up the porch. She pauses to look at the old woman, rocking ever so slightly, looking out into space. Durga nods at her and walks back into her room. She looks at her phone, so far no messages from Dev. She grabs her bag and rushes out.

Sacchi has her face fed into the palms of her hand as she lies on the grass listening to the American. Durga changes the topic. ‘So you’re from Alaska?’

The man shakes his head. He says he was in Anchorage for a few summers. He worked the salmon fishing season for three consecutive years. “Hard work that, mostly 12-16 hours at a go, but Alaska is a special place, you have to see it to believe it.”

They walk, a tiny chain, hand-in-hand with Sacchi in the middle. The road is steep, the sun is shining. A group of young Tibetan girls dressed in leggings and fancy sneakers pass them by. Durga wonders if she could pull off shiny shoes. She wants to.

On the way, the American tells Durga about Kushtaka: “Sometimes good but mostly evil. One of the tribes this legend comes from is matrilineal, well sort of. Do you know what matrilineal means?” He looks at Sacchi. Sacchi stares at her mother in confusion. The man clears his throat. “It’s when a family goes by the woman’s name and rules.”

‘Klinkklack?” Durga asks, already sure she had made a mistake.

“Tlingit,” the American corrects her. She asks him if he had been to Delhi. He tries to stay out of cities but he does like Chennai. He even pronounces Chennai well. Sacchi is humming a Hindi song, the man asks her to teach him the words.

“You really like kids,” Durga offers. She feels the guilt walk back into her body. Durga thinks of Dev. He must be reaching work by now. She remembers his hopeful face. Another child, a sibling for Sacchi, that was what would save their marriage. She couldn’t argue with his logic, the happiest time in their marriage was when Durga was pregnant with Sacchi. Of all the things she remembers, via smell, Dev’s breath. Always pleasant, always candied. She touches her stomach again and sighs.

They arrive on Mall Street and walk towards the Dalai Lama Temple. Outside, street vendors sell books on Buddhism and the history of Tibet. There are raw sliced fruits, and pots of thukpa. A necklace of packaged chips lace through street hawker stands and Sacchi runs towards one.

The American runs behind her and buys her a packet. Durga doesn’t feel odd about it or even grateful. She just feels comfortable, a feeling she hadn’t been used to.

Durga walks towards the black pillars, memorials for those who had sacrificed their lives for a free Tibet. A Lama monk sits nearby with a donation box. She takes out a 500-rupee note and pushes it into the box. The monk nods his head. She could see the American and Sacchi walk towards her. “It’s incredible, right? Thousands of Tibetans crossing the Himalayas to places like India and Nepal. I try to explain this to my folks, India is a nation of many countries and stories.”

“I think all nations are, in some way, right?” Andy shakes his head in disagreement, but won’t say anything more.

By late afternoon, they are back at the guesthouse, sipping milky sweet coffee with Marie biscuits. The American had stayed on to take in the museum. “Mama, when will we buy souvenirs for Daddy?” “Tomorrow, we have all day.”

And then they would be back to Delhi, back to Dev. She wasn’t sure how she’d lay out her truth yet. She had asked for three days, to get away from the city, to consider his proposal. Buying time. But the truth was far from a simple no. Dev was a simple enough man. Durga used to be simple too, but motherhood had illustrated how easygoing she was. A little too easygoing. When Sacchi started to draw horrific representations of movies she saw, her teacher reported it. Dev was worried; Durga said it was a phase, one that she should be allowed to go through. “She’s not really affected by it, no nightmares or fears, she’s just intrigued by it.”

“Maybe that itself is a problem,” Dev had countered. But their parenting style started to create tiny cracks in their marriage. Durga felt every one of them, almost as if she could trace those cracks with her fingers, feel the crumbling sediments of their bond between the skin of her thumb and forefinger. They got past it with sex, lots of it. Muted sex. In the middle of the night, one of them would reach for the other. In the morning, it was back to the cracks.

She leaves Sacchi sleeping on the bed and walks out to the porch. The old lady is not there. She sees the outline of the American at the gate. She waves. “Where’s the old lady,” he asks. “She hasn’t been here since we got back.”

He looks at her tenderly. She averts her eyes. “You doing ok?” She nods, but she feels tears spring to her eyes. The man hugs her, she can smell faint deodorant. She can almost smell the synthetic crumpling of his backpack as it adjusts to the hug. Then he does something magnificent. He leaves for his room. She sighs in relief, no pressure to explain herself. This was a great American quality.

Sacchi is up in the evening. They sit out by the porch. The old lady is back, sitting, rocking, silent. Sacchi goes up to her and smiles. She doesn’t respond. Sacchi tries to climb on her lap. “Come back here, now!” Durga demands. She waits for the American to come out, but he doesn’t. They take a stroll outside the guesthouse, Sacchi is still whining about souvenirs. She agrees to wait till tomorrow in exchange for a fluffy tingmo.

Durga dreams. Half otter, half man, bloated face, grey skin. Kushtaka comes towards her and reaches between her legs. She starts to scream and blinks open her eyes. It’s only 11:30 pm. She looks to the side, Sacchi is deep in sleep. She wraps a shawl around her shoulders and walks back to the porch, hoping to see the American.

All that’s there is the old lady, rocking. The secret bubbles up in her chest. She walks towards the woman, sits by her feet. Intuitively, she puts her hand on hers. She had asked for a spiritual sign, but here was an opportunity for her confession. The old lady’s hands are warm and rough. The breaking of her voice seems magnified by the silence of the night.

“My name is Durga, I don’t know if you can understand me. How do I tell my husband that the second child he wants is not possible? That I was pregnant with our second child just a month ago, and I aborted it?”

The old lady mutters something in a language she can’t understand. Then she taps her hand three times. A whole second lingers between each tap. A blessing, Durga deduces.

Time up, it would have to do. She bows her head to the woman, stands up and walks back into the guesthouse. She looks to the door on the left where Sacchi sleeps, then to the door on the right where she knows Andy sleeps. Hesitancy stalls her for a moment. Then she walks to the right and raps her knuckles precisely three times on the door.

(Rheea Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Penguin Hamish Hamilton))

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