Pankaj Challa

Halwa

 

At Mathura sta­tion, a man in a neat­ly ironed black shirt got in.

Namaste,” Vik said to him. The man’s nose twitched—as though in response to the American accent. “I am as brown as any Indian,” Vik said, “but born in America.”

This seat and the oth­ers here,” the man said in English, “are ours.”

Oh, I am sor­ry.”  Vik got up from the win­dow seat he had been sit­ting in, and checked his tick­et again: num­ber 6. The com­part­ment, which was open to the aisle on one side, con­sist­ed of two bench seats fac­ing each oth­er: and seat 6 was on the aisle end of the bench. He moved.

Two red-shirt­ed porters brought in var­i­ous bags, can­teens, suit­cas­es. They car­ried them in the Indian fash­ion: suit-cas­es piled atop tur­baned heads, a hand hold­ing them in place; bags slung over shoul­ders, and over the crook of elbows; and any free hand grasp­ing small­er bags. Women and chil­dren fol­lowed the lug­gage and the porters, and now every inch of space in the com­part­ment was occu­pied. There was lug­gage on the seats, on the floor, every­where.  When the train moved, the fam­i­ly set­tled down to lunch, and there was the smell of puris and of chut­ney.

Vik stood up and went out into the pas­sage­way behind the com­part­ment. Here, there was a sink against the wall, with a grimy mir­ror above it, on which were drop-sized stick­ers of old bin­di. He could pic­ture an Indian woman there, in the morn­ing, or in the evening of a long jour­ney, remov­ing the bin­di from her fore­head, stick­ing it up on the mir­ror so she could wash her face, and then putting on a new stick­er, leav­ing behind the old one. And next to the sink was the coach door, which was kept open even in tran­sit, the heavy iron door like that of an old safe, let­ting in the air and the smells of India. A boy sat there now, legs dan­gling over the open door­way, clutch­ing the handrails, his thick hair blow­ing in the wind. He turned to look at Vik. He would be about six or sev­en, his face chub­by for a street-child, wear­ing brown shorts that were fair­ly clean and not in tat­ters, but fad­ed in col­or. The boy remind­ed Vik of him­self as a child: the hair, the large brown eyes. Vik’s child­hood nick­name was Dittu–so that’s how he thought of him.

Dittu’s eyes were red from the dust.  Vik felt an urge to give the boy his sun­glass­es, but did not, and instead stood and watched the sug­ar­cane fields as they passed by. And a lit­tle down the line, near Gwalior sta­tion: a medieval fort atop a cliff-bound hill, with numer­ous domes, the sand­stone walls cir­cling the entire hill; and look­ing at the cliffs and the dusty ochre of the slopes, the same col­or as the walls, it seemed as though the fort were not con­struct­ed, but some­how grew on the earth.

*

Apart from the man, there was his wife, and three boys, aged about five, ten, and four­teen, and a grand­moth­er.  The wife wore a sari the green of a macaw.  She sat cross-legged on the seat, her mouth blood-red from chew­ing betel leaves, head veiled in pur­dah.

From a card­board box, the man served bite-sized, dia­mond-shaped pieces of hal­wa car­rot cake into teak-leaf plates, and hand­ed them to the chil­dren, who squealed with delight. Unlike the hal­wa Vik remem­bered from Indian restau­rants in the US, this one had a rougher tex­ture to it.  Perhaps the car­rots were hand-grat­ed.

In spite of her veil, Vik could tell the wife was not the moth­er of the boys–she looked far too young.  Then he heard the boys call the man Maman–Uncle.

Kanhaiyya!” Uncle said to the four­teen-year-old, rais­ing his hand. “You will get a slap.” It was unclear to Vik what the boy had done.  He recalled from his read­ing that the name Kanhaiyya was an endear­ment for Lord Krishna.

Uncle pushed a leaf-plate of hal­wa into Vik’s hands.  “Take it,” he said.

Thanks, but no,” he replied polite­ly.

Did you have some­thing to eat?”

Yes–I just had an ener­gy bar.”

Kya?” said Uncle.

It is like a choco­late,” said Kanhaiyya.  “It has an entire meal in it.”

Uncle snort­ed.  He com­menced eat­ing the hal­wa with noisy rel­ish.

Your English,” Vik said to Kanhaiyya, “is very good.  I am impressed.  How did you learn to speak so well?”

Kanhaiyya looked at him, and then at his uncle.  Without reply­ing, he smiled and con­tin­ued eat­ing.

You are not Indian,” Uncle said to Vik then, almost accus­ing­ly.  “Not Indian,” he repeat­ed, still chew­ing loud­ly.

I am genet­i­cal­ly an Indian.”  Genetically Indian.  He’d nev­er referred to him­self like that before. Vik—full name Vikram Seecharan—could always claim to be an Indian in America, but not here.  He could not even say that his par­ents were from India.  His ances­tors had left the coun­try three gen­er­a­tions ago.  On his father’s side, his great-grand­fa­ther had immi­grat­ed to the West Indies, set­tling in Guyana, and his grand­fa­ther to America.  On his mother’s side, the route was India to Kenya to America.  They had no con­nec­tions left in India. “I grew up in America.”

Having fin­ished eat­ing, Uncle got up, crum­pled the leaf plate in his hands, and threw it out of the win­dow, through the iron bars. He col­lect­ed the plates of the oth­ers and dis­card­ed them too. Vik felt he was not on a train, but in the family’s home: Kanhaiyya and the boys sat beside him, with Sarvani at the win­dow; and Grandmother and Uncle were on the oth­er bench seat, Grandmother by the win­dow, and Uncle oppo­site Vik. But the boys fre­quent­ly moved to sit by Grandmother, play­ing with the free end of her sari, or her ban­gles.

I am a busi­ness­man, jew­el­ry busi­ness,” Uncle said, sit­ting down again, drink­ing from his can­teen. Vik, with his long legs, was mind­ful of not bump­ing knees with Uncle, and turned a lit­tle to the side.  “You should trav­el in First Class, not in Sleeper Class. There is no AC here, the bath­rooms are Indian-style, it is dirty, the beg­gars will pester you, any num­ber of irri­tat­ing things.” Uncle put the can­teen away, and rubbed his hands over his thighs. Every fin­ger of his right hand had a ring on it, except the thumb. “We trav­el like this because we are Indians—we are used to it.”

I am an Indian too,” Vik mur­mured, sip­ping from his water bot­tle.

No, you are not,” said Uncle.

I will be soon. And I want­ed to trav­el the way most Indians trav­el.”

You will be an Indian soon?”  Uncle laughed, and start­ed to shiv­er his legs. “How is that pos­si­ble?”

I intend to set­tle down in India.”

Why?” asked Uncle, look­ing at him with wide eyes.

Vik laughed. “Because I love India.”

If you do,” Uncle said, “enjoy India from far away.  Visit now and then.  You don’t need to live here.”

I want­ed to get back to my roots.”

You are not a plant,” said Uncle seri­ous­ly.

*

They had stopped at Jhansi sta­tion. Over one of the sta­tion signs, peo­ple hung lunch box­es and ther­moses, obscur­ing the sta­tion name in Hindi, Urdu, and English. On the plat­form, a slen­der, strik­ing young woman in a yel­low sari and veil stood near a ban­ner, a lug­gage-sack of pink fab­ric at her feet, the ban­ner adver­tis­ing a col­lege on Gwalior Road. He pic­tured once more the fort he had seen near Gwalior sta­tion, and remem­bered Gwalior and Jhansi from Stanley Wolpert’s India, which he had begun read­ing, although he had read it before, many times over.

America is not exact­ly heav­en, you know,” he said to Uncle, when the train start­ed mov­ing again.  “You won’t believe if I told you how it real­ly is over there.”

Tell me, how is life like in America?” asked Uncle, smil­ing, fin­gers smooth­ing his thick eye­brows.

Sometimes it can be quite gloomy.”

Gloomy!”

Especially in the win­ter.  Especially in a place like Chicago, where I am from.”

I know in America,” he said, “peo­ple eat frozen food.”

We buy frozen food.” Vik smiled. “We do heat it up before eat­ing.  But win­ter in Chicago–sometimes, on real­ly cold days, we bun­dle up so com­plete­ly, only the nose is exposed.  When we come back from gro­cery shop­ping, our noses become red, and we feel like the skin would peel off.”

His wife whis­pered some­thing to Uncle.

He is talk­ing about how life is like in Am-ree­ka,” he told her in Hindi.  “It is so cold there that noses freeze, and when they come in from the cold, they shed skin from their noses, like snakes.”

See, Sarvani?” the grand­moth­er said to the wife.  “It is a good thing that Am-ree­ka groom did not see you, after all.”

Ma!”  Uncle groaned.

It is good to talk about things, not good to keep them cooped up inside.”  The grand­moth­er turned to Vik and said, “Sarvani still thinks she missed an oppor­tu­ni­ty when that engi­neer boy came to her vil­lage, look­ing for a bride.”  Sarvani pulled the veil over her face.  “She had chick­en pox then, and couldn’t be dis­played.”

Nevertheless,” Uncle said to Vik, with a wave of his hand, as if to sweep the women out of the con­ver­sa­tion, “you should live in a place that will reward you well for your labors.  Here, you work and work, and get lit­tle to show for it at the end.”  He shook his head.  “What will you do for a liv­ing?”

I will teach English.”

But teach­ing is the worst pro­fes­sion to go for,” he said.  “Teachers get paid noth­ing in India.”

Vik smiled again.

That’s the case every­where.”

Are you mar­ried?” Uncle asked abrupt­ly.

No.  I grad­u­at­ed from col­lege only a year ago.”

What did you study?”

Indian Studies and English.”

Indian Studies?  What’s that?”

You study about India,” Vik replied, shrug­ging his shoul­ders.

Uncle shook his head.  “You should have con­sult­ed me before choos­ing your stud­ies.  I would have steered you towards Business or Law or the Sciences.”

Money is not impor­tant to me,” Vik said.

Uncle pat­ted him on the back.  “Listen, you are not mar­ried, you don’t yet know the mean­ing of money–the mean­ing of mon­ey in India.  In a poor coun­try like this, you are not well-off even if you are in a high-pay­ing pro­fes­sion.”

I hear things have changed for the bet­ter. I hear India has changed.”

That’s all news­pa­per stuff, don’t believe it.  Nothing has changed!”  He yawned and stretched.  “They say that in America, a sweep­er gets fif­teen lakh rupees per year?  Is that true?”

If you con­vert the cur­ren­cy, I guess so. But of course sweep­ers are by no means well-off.”

Fifteen lakh rupees in a year for a sweep­er!”  Uncle chuck­led.  “It’s all over for me, but I am hop­ing to be able to send my son to the States.  That is, if I ever have a son.”  He looked at Sarvani, who frowned back at her hus­band and once again pulled the veil over her eyes.

For no appar­ent rea­son, the train slowed and stopped.  Vik went out to the open coach door again, eager to look at the coun­try­side. Dittu and the oth­ers had left, and hitch­ing up his shorts, Vik sat in Dittu’s place, clutch­ing the handrails, his san­daled-feet rest­ing out­side on the coach-steps, the knees bare and exposed to the sun and air. They had stopped by a grove of kha­joor date-palms: the trees not on dry land but trunks sub­merged to the roots in a mon­soon pool, dates hang­ing in bright red bunch­es, reflect­ing dul­ly in the new, mud­dy water.

*

A cell phone rang.  Uncle spoke into it with a rasp­ing voice.  Then he start­ed mak­ing a bed in an upper berth, aid­ed by the five-year-old.  He spread out an orange flo­ral bed-sheet, and the five-year-old, who had a bowl-hair­cut, held the oth­er end.  Vik not­ed the sleep­ing arrange­ments in store for them all.  The seats fold­ed up to form eight sleep­er berths in all, dorm-style set­up on three lev­els, low­er, mid­dle, and upper.  He would get an upper berth, and a low­er one would be emp­ty.

Uncle got off the phone, and shout­ed, “Magazine hai?”  Someone tossed him one, and he lay down read­ing.  From anoth­er upper-berth, the bowl-hair­cut boy shout­ed:  “Kanhaiyya!  Kanhaiyya!”  His broth­ers ignored him.

Kanhaiyya asked the grand­moth­er, “What are you lis­ten­ing to?  Jagjit Singh?”

Vik could hear faint music–and yes, it was a Jagjit Singh ghaz­al.  The old woman clutched a speak­er to her ear, a white com­put­er speak­er con­nect­ed to a Walkman.  She swayed her head this way and that, slow­ly, her uplift­ed hand accom­pa­ny­ing the rhythm of the raga, an emer­ald ring set in black­ened sil­ver on one fin­ger.

Vik had set aside the India book he had been read­ing and Kanhaiyya picked it up, leaf­ing through it. Although Vik said, “it’s okay,” the boy put it back on the seat.

*

Two chil­dren ambled down the aisle: Dittu and a girl of about nine or ten, who looked like his big sis­ter. She sang a dole­ful Hindi song and Dittu col­lect­ed mon­ey. Vik did not give them any­thing. They were plump and cute, and looked more like for­lorn char­ac­ters in a Bollywood film, rather than the beg­gars of India Vik had pic­tured. Although, unlike the fam­i­ly chil­dren, who wore san­dals, Dittu and his sis­ter walked bare­foot, and had cracked heels—he’d nev­er seen that in a child before.

As Indian émi­grés to the West Indies, Vik’s ances­tors had been labor­ers.  What if they’d remained back in India, would his lot have been much bet­ter than Dittu’s? His great-grand­fa­ther must have left a vil­lage just like the ones they were pass­ing: nobody knew for cer­tain what his occu­pa­tion or posi­tion had been before he sailed to Guyana. Some said he worked on a farm on a dai­ly wage, the hard life of a labor­er; oth­ers said he sold fruit from a small cart in the mar­ket.

He indeed liked the fruit sell­ers in the sta­tions: their push-carts were filled with bananas, gua­va fruit, man­goes yel­low and large, fra­grant. One time on the plat­form, he bought guavas from a thin young man with pre­ma­ture­ly grey­ing hair. Further down: a cart of samosas with a mos­qui­to net cov­er­ing them; and a pas­sen­ger stood near­by, an old man with a jute bag slung over his shoul­der, wear­ing a long white kur­tah and a vest, an orange tur­ban, and a string of rudrak­sha beads around his neck.

*

In the after­noon, Sarvani lay down on a low­er berth.  The grand­moth­er start­ed singing anoth­er ghaz­al with her eyes closed, the roman­tic refrain of which, Chale Aao, filled the com­part­ment; and the rat­tle of the train seemed to accom­pa­ny her singing.  In an upper berth, Uncle had fall­en asleep, snor­ing loud­ly.

Vik tried speak­ing to Kanhaiyya again.  “Where are you trav­el­ing to?”

The boy looked up, as though to check on Uncle—still snor­ing. “Tirupati,” he final­ly said. “And you?”

Vijayawada,” Vik replied. Kanhaiyya shared with his uncle those bold eye-brows—and the habit of shiv­er­ing his legs.

Do you have fam­i­ly there?” asked Kanhaiyya.

No, I’ll be work­ing.  In a school.”  He then added: “My name is Vik, short for Vikram.”

One of my cousin name is Vikram,” he said, sound­ing excit­ed. Vik stopped him­self from cor­rect­ing him that it should be “cousins”—he would learn soon enough, and this wasn’t an ESL class­room yet. “We are going to the Balaji tem­ple. Have you heard about it?”

Yes, the Tirupati temple—the sec­ond rich­est place of wor­ship in the world after the Vatican.”

I think it real­ly is rich­er than the Vatican,” said Kanhaiyya, “because it is poor people’s mon­ey.”

Outside, fog had start­ed to col­lect, and the sun was set­ting.  They were pass­ing through tiger coun­try in cen­tral India: teak forests, rolling hills, ravines, and creeks rush­ing over boul­ders, the stones glow­ing in the orange light.  The tourist in Vik looked out hun­gri­ly. And Kanhaiyya and the two boys shout­ed, in mock-American accents, “Oh, what a beau­ti­ful place!  Oh, what a nice place.  Oh!  Oh!  Really!”  And then it degen­er­at­ed into a con­test among them, see­ing who could speak in the fun­ni­est mock-American accent.

*

Twilight quick­ly gave way to dark­ness. Uncle got up and turned on the lights.  It was sup­per­time.  Vik liked Indian food, but want­ed to wait until he could go to a prop­er restau­rant: so he had short­bread cook­ies and anoth­er pro­tein bar, while the fam­i­ly had puris, cur­ried yel­low rice, and yogurt, served neat­ly on the paper plates they had brought with them. There was the fra­grance of toast­ed cumin, turmer­ic, corian­der. Sarvani had tak­en off her veil to eat, and he thought her pret­ty: she ate neat­ly with her fin­gers, with the clink of ban­gles.

The adults belched after their meal, and then Uncle turned to Vik.

Listen, have some hal­wa,” he said.

Oh,” Vik said, “I’ve just had a bunch of cook­ies.”

How big is this lit­tle piece, eh?”  said Uncle, hold­ing out one.  “Just a gulp.”

You must have it,” said Kanhaiyya.  The three boys nod­ded like mem­bers of a jury.

I get sick eas­i­ly, you know.”

And you said you were an Indian!”  Uncle shook his head.  “No Indian gets sick from eat­ing hal­wa!”

Have you had hal­wa before?” asked Kanhaiyya.

Yes, many times.  In America.”

That’s firen­gi hal­wa,” Kanhaiyya said, wrin­kling his nose.  “Taste this and you will know what hal­wa is.”

The grand­moth­er said, “I have not seen you eat any­thing all day.”

I had cook­ies right in front of you!”

It is not cooked food,” she said. “Why do they call it cook-kees?  I made this hal­wa. Eat it.”

The hal­wa looked red, and invit­ing, with an almond flake on top, and the fra­grance of saf­fron.  Vik took a bite.  The sweet­ness did not come from refined sugar—it had the denser, more com­plex fla­vor of jag­gery, ghee, and some­thing else.

How is it?” the grand­moth­er asked.

It’s deli­cious,” he replied, and her face glowed.

Have some more,” she said.

Uncle put a cou­ple more pieces in the plate before Vik could stop him.

No,” he groaned.

What, no?” the grand­moth­er said.  “The Indian sun will bake you, and make you too dark, and then you won’t get a decent dowry.  If you eat good things like my car­rot hal­wa your cheeks will remain rud­dy and round.”  She light­ly pinched Vik’s cheek.

Sarvani gig­gled, and Uncle frowned at her.  She slipped the veil over her face.

*

Vik’s trou­bles start­ed around nine, in the form of cough. The fam­i­ly had already turned in for the night, and he muf­fled his coughs with a hand­ker­chief.

Whenever he felt he was about to throw up, he went and stood at the sink out­side the com­part­ment, wait­ing for it to hap­pen, although pray­ing it would not hap­pen, want­i­ng to keep the hal­wa down like a real Indian.

Dittu, his sis­ter, and anoth­er boy slept in the pas­sage­way, curled up on thin, dirty tow­els.   Back in the com­part­ment, he looked at the emp­ty berth: why couldn’t those chil­dren sleep there? But of course, this was a reserved com­part­ment; they would not dare come in. Because of the cough­ing and the nau­sea, he sat up and pre­pared him­self to read all night.

*

On his next vis­it to the sink how­ev­er, he nudged the chil­dren awake.  He had rehearsed what he want­ed to say to them, in sim­ple Hindi, but found it eas­i­er not to speak at all. He grunt­ed, ges­tured, and led them to the emp­ty berth. Hardly wak­ing up, the chil­dren fol­lowed and occu­pied it, hud­dling togeth­er.  Dittu squeezed into a sliv­er of space at the edge of the berth.

Vik got through a few more pages of Wolpert’s India, and anoth­er round of cough­ing.  Then he heard a loud thud.  Dittu had fall­en from the berth. He rubbed his red eyes.  Still half-asleep, he climbed back onto the berth.  He fell down almost imme­di­ate­ly.        Sarvani twitched and turned over in her sleep, but for­tu­nate­ly did not wake up.  Dittu fell down three or four times, and Vik wor­ried that the noise might wake some­one in the fam­i­ly: he didn’t expect they’d be too hap­py to see those chil­dren shar­ing their com­part­ment, but he would wake them up at dawn, and send them back to the pas­sage­way.

Outside, it had start­ed rain­ing, water drops trick­ling down on to win­dow bars, which clear­ly had been paint­ed many times over to keep the rust away. Nevertheless, the bars felt rough to the touch, and flakes of peel­ing paint stuck to Vik’s fin­gers. He closed the iron shut­ters, and it smelled of iron and rust. Dittu’s sis­ter reached up and pulled down the shut­ters on her side of the com­part­ment. When she fell back on the berth, she occu­pied more space, and Dittu end­ed up on the floor again.

Vik laughed. And then need­ed to run to the sink. The inevitable final­ly hap­pened.

When he got back after hav­ing thrown up, he felt much bet­ter: no more cough­ing.

He stayed up still, and instead of remain­ing in the com­part­ment, went out to sit in the open door­way of the coach again. This time he took off his san­dals, put his bare feet on the met­al coach-steps, and felt the sand and dirt under­foot, and on his cheek was the cool breeze, the air still moist from far­away rain. The faint light of approach­ing dawn lit the sky and the land. They were on the Deccan plateau now, pass­ing by rocky hillocks. And on the fields and beside the track, there were large boul­ders of gran­ite, one on top of the oth­er, impos­si­bly bal­anced. Two water buf­fa­lo, moth­er and calf, grazed in a pas­ture: and a hut stood at the edge of the field, with some­one asleep on a cot out­side, a soli­tary lantern on the ground beside the bed. As per sched­ule, they were sup­posed to be pulling into Vijayawada just after 6 a.m. He felt sleepy, so he went back in, and set his alarm clock.

*

The alarm woke him up—or per­haps it was the shout­ing. Uncle was yelling at Dittu, and slap­ping him.  The entire fam­i­ly was awake, look­ing on, still stretched out on their berths.  Dittu’s sis­ter watched, lean­ing against the wall at the edge of the com­part­ment.

Don’t hit him!”  Vik hopped down from his berth.  He clutched Dittu’s shoul­der and pulled the boy towards him­self.  Dittu was not cry­ing. In fact, he just looked bored and sleepy. “I made them take the emp­ty berth.” Of course, a mis­take, in caste-con­scious India—but not, he told him­self, if he had wok­en them up on time and sent them back to the pas­sage­way.

Uncle glared at him, and as the train pulled in at Vijayawada sta­tion, he took out a tooth­brush and soap, and stormed out of the com­part­ment.

Vik slung his back­pack about his shoul­ders, and wheeled out his sec­ond piece of luggage–all the while hold­ing on to Dittu, who end­ed up with him on the plat­form.  He had no log­ic behind drag­ging Dittu along.  The boy looked at him with an amused expres­sion, now ful­ly awake.  His sis­ter stood at the door and frowned at Vik, seem­ing­ly afraid to come on to the plat­form, and at the same time not will­ing to lose sight of her broth­er.

From his wal­let, Vik took out two 100 rupee notes—about $4, and offered it to Dittu.  His sis­ter stepped down, grabbed the mon­ey, and pulled Dittu back on to the train. They dis­ap­peared inside with­out glanc­ing back.

A man in a white shirt approached him. “Mister Vikram Seecharan? I am Mister Rao, School Secretary.”

~

Pankaj Challa was trained as an elec­tri­cal engi­neer, and has made inde­pen­dent films: but on read­ing Chekhov, has turned seri­ous­ly to the art of writ­ing. He recent­ly received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami, where he was a James Michener Fellow. Pankaj’s fic­tion has appeared in Crazyhorse and Saint Ann’s Review, among oth­er places.