‘Sister” short story reading
Today I’m presenting a short story which I wrote some time ago. It takes the form of a letter from a brother to a sister. The only thing is, the brother remembers her from his past life, but he’s not sure if she remembers him.
Here’s the text version:
Dear Manjot (light of the heart),
I hope you and Kirandeep are well.
I want to remind you of our relationship, before you were born. Before I was born. I hope you don’t think I’m deluded.
You were so skinny that you slid through tiny hoops. I remember your bony shoulders poking through a blue sequined dress, which sparkled when you first found it. Your black, dreaded hair flopped around like a mop as you flipped and did handstands in train aisles or dangled with your knees hooked over sleeping-bunks. People clapped or pretended we weren’t there. Some gave money. I stood behind you in the aisles, a felt-tip moustache on my face, a man’s suit draped on me like a tent, pinned up around my bare calves.
I was your older brother and you my sister. Your name was Roma. Mine was Raj, though I was hardly a king. Do you remember?
I could play the ektara somewhat –the one-stringed instrument given us by our father. I wasn’t much for melody but the trains taught me rhythm: click-a-de clack, da-dunk, click-a-de clack, da-dunk. I twanged the ektara to the same rhythm which jostled the people back and forth. I think they liked that.
They said to me, “Boy! Sing Jaya Jagadish Hare!”
Or to you, “Can you pass through three hoops at once?”
And if we could do what they asked, they’d sing along and clap and would surely give us something. At first I didn’t know the popular Bengali and Oriya songs but I learned them as people sang for me what they wanted to hear. “Like this…”
You said to me when we were stopped at a country station, “I’ll learn how to balance on my mouth!” You’d seen a girl do this in a marketplace once, chest facing the ground and legs bending behind her head. “People will give rupees like a rain,” you said, nodding with raised eyebrows.
You dreamed of being a super-flexible yogi. I imagined I’d become a master musician. Such ideas kept us hopeful.
I remember when we switched trains, you waited on the old one until it started moving. I ordered you to join me on the platform but you leaned out the door and made a funny, defiant face. Finally you jumped off and ran along the platform, slowing to a stop. That made me angry, and I think that’s why you did it, because you liked me protecting you.
Do you have these memories? You died in between. So did I, but by God’s desire I recall the journey.
Evenings on the trains were best, when people hadn’t pulled their bunks down to sleep but were relaxed. They played cards, ate or entertained their kids. They’d give us a few rupees then. Big fat people, some of them. What they must have spent on food! The toilets’ stench was overpowered by the smell of hot rice, rotis and dahl.
I remember the day you died. We were curled against the train door. People sprayed us with water as they used the sink above us. The friction between the linked cars sounded like metal thunder. We stopped at a station where the train was cleaned.
I was thirsty. I jumped onto the platform as workers in orange overalls mounted the train. I went looking for drinkable water. People slept on benches under rows of fluorescent lights cutting the night. Shiva’s crescent moon hung amid dark clouds and a wind blew from arid hills.
While I was drinking, men in expensive shirts offered me potato-pea samosas with coconut chutney. I ate some and wanted to bring some back for you, but they got me talking about where I was from and what I did on the trains. They saw my ektara and asked me to sing. I sang a short tune, still thinking of you. They complimented me, said I should enroll in a music academy. They’d help me get in. “Sing another!”
I was caught by their attention and was singing so loudly that I didn’t hear the train leaving.
Finally I heard the click-a-de clack of the wheels rolling over joints in the track. I turned. The train was accelerating out of the station, doors and windows passing into the night. You were leaning out a door, searching the platform. I dropped my ektara with a crack-twang and ran to you, calling your name, “ROMA!” between sharp breaths. You looked at me and screamed, “RAJ!” I clawed at door handles and window latches locked from the inside. Far ahead you hung out an open door. I ran faster. Maybe I should have grabbed some window-bars but it was already going so fast. I had no idea where the train was going. Windows and doors fell ahead of me into darkness. I ran harder and you reached out your hand, but half the station lay between us. Your strained smile broke as you realized I wouldn’t catch up.
There’ll be dried teardrops on this paper, if you look closely.
Then your face changed. You got your funny defiant look. You jumped, clutching your colored hoops, you hit the ground and lost your footing. You crumpled then rolled and slid. You stopped against a column which kept the station’s roof up. Your hoops rolled along the platform and onto the tracks behind the caboose.
For a full year I kept thinking you’d show up again. People don’t really believe in death. Maybe because the soul is eternal. Death’s all around us: people, plants, animals dying, but does anyone think they’ll die? We know it intellectually but do we believe we’ll actually stop existing? Just the body dies; that I know now.
The men who’d given me samosas caught me from behind.
I spent almost two years with them. They didn’t bring me to music school but sent me begging. They weren’t kind men, but they provided a sort of shelter, and maybe that was my bad karma mixing with God’s protection of me.
You might be thinking that all this explains your strange dreams about trains. I’m laughing now. In this life, you’d rather walk from Ottawa to Whitehorse than get on a train.
The men sent me all over Eastern India, always with one other child. In pairs we’d beg on trains, perform or steal to make our quota. We were like cows wandering a city, eating whatever we could find then coming home to get milked. The men didn’t keep us in pairs long enough to get close; we might have run away together.
After a year I understood you were gone. With no close friends, I didn’t much want to live. I got sick and the men found me medicine but they didn’t know what they were doing. I fell ill at the beginning of the rainy season and left before its end. When I died, I was thinking of my little sister, of you.
It’s hard to describe how I knew it was you. You looked very different: twenty years old, not seven; tall and beautiful and of course in a completely different body. You were well-fed but slender with fine brown hair. I recognized you through a combination of many many small things. Your laughing-dove-chuckle was almost the same. So was the way you folded plastic packages while you talked. You used to jump when you were excited; now you roll up on your toes grinning unabashedly. The way your nose wrinkles when you smell something you don’t like, the way your ears rise when you’re annoyed, the way you move gracefully through a crowd like you’re gliding on ice… so many things.
Maybe you can see why I hesitated to tell you. It’s inappropriate I suppose. Your husband might get jealous. It seems strange, my trying to rekindle something from another life.
You’re my sister. These last thirty years, serving in the school together, I’ve had it confirmed who you are – or were – a million times in a million little ways. When I think of you in that other life, roaming around performing on trains, I see your face as it is now. Maybe you know too, and you just don’t know what to make of it.
You can speak about all this with me if you’d like, but you don’t have to. If you just give me a nod of recognition, I’ll be satisfied. Or if none of this makes sense, you can pretend you never read it and just consider me a fellow naturalized Indian, as we are in this life. I’m planning a trip to India soon. I want to visit the holy places before this body gets too old for the journey. I might stay there until I die. I’m quite sick already, as you know. So whatever awkwardness this letter might cause won’t last long. I’m laughing. Each life is so short, isn’t it!
In any case, please think of me as an old friend.