“Are you feeling cold?” he asked.
He had already finished his dinner, and now he was resting with his legs crossed and one feet tapping against the other. A kerosene lamp was burning between him and the pallet. Often, twisted and rippling its light would get.
“There was no pickle tonight,” he said, more like an observation than complaint. “Rice smelled bit stale too. I think Bipin’s mother is tired of feeding me. When I went to fetch the dinner, she asked about you and had her eyes upon me as if I were lying.”
He turned his head towards the pallet. From where he was lying on the floor, he could not get a full view of her. The pallet was his father’s and he liked it high.
“Are you cold, Mother?” he asked again. The old sari that she used as a blanket was lying at her feet in a lump. He was not perturbed by her lack of response. She knew better and sometimes she stopped talking altogether to preserve breath.
“I did not work hard today. When the seth was not around to watch me, I simply sat and relaxed. Others even frowned at me. I said to them the seth should have known better before rebuking me. I talked to him this morning as you’ve asked for. He brushed me off as somebody new and lot less useful than others. He pointed to a gas cylinder and said when I could lift something as heavy as that only then he would pay me sixty rupees. I said my mother is not well and she has asked to ask you for more wage. Then he said to ask you to get better soon.”
From behind the wall, Bipin’s mother’s voice could be heard. She was angry at her two sons for fighting. Through a chink in the wall he could spot the light from their house. Soon the siren from the construction site would wail and the night shift workers would be out on the streets. His father used to sit and wait for such sirens too. But he used to work in a factory. That too a proper one.
He propped his torso up against the elbows and excitedly said, “Should we leave this place? Since the seth is not ready to pay me as much as you, then why stay here? Someone was saying if we take a bus and travel south then overnight we will reach a glass factory, a big one and the smoke from its chimney never stops coming.” Then suddenly the siren bellowed in a continuous, lengthy rise for as long as the ears could not ignore it, and the night became full and booming like a wave was rising to fill a void.
He waited for the laborers to come out of their shacks and make the short distance to the construction site. But before that he noticed the silence the siren had left in its wake. As the full force of that sound drowned all other, so did the absence of it and with it vanished the constant hum of the construction machinery.
He was immediately at unease with that silence. He sat upright and watched his mother’s frail breathing in the dim light. She should be asleep. She needed rest. He brought the lamp closer to him and poked at the filament. The flame rose. In the new light, his mother’s shadow on the wall rose too and her supine silhouette gained prominence. As he watched it with doubt he thought as he had been thinking lately that only fire, yes, only fire stood between him and her now.
His fingers had the soot of the flame and some grease too. He rubbed his thumb and two fingers together. The red dust, ever-present and invisible around him, left its stain. The greasy, red look of his fingers made him feel older and important.
BIO: Shailen Mishra holds an MFA degree in Creative Writing from NC State University. "Primarily a novelist, but the short story and flash fiction are most fertile ground for me to test the craft and style. Born and raised in India, my world view is shaped by cities like Bombay and Bangalore. Exploring human condition through fiction is a nightmarish as well as a rewarding engagement for me."
Motivation: A particular image: the shape of a shadow rising or falling generated by a lamp flame (esp a hurricane or a kerosene lamp), and subsequently the impression of such a shadow and the related symbology of fire in Hindu tradition.
Photo by: Vasant Dave