Curtains (an excerpt)

In late-twentieth-century India, a boy whose mother is a stage actress grows up in a traumatic relationship with a viscerally compelling but dying art form—commercial theatre. 

The Firebird by Saikat MajumdarThe sprawling stone turrets of the temple spread out against the sky like the petals of a lotus. It did not look like a temple but a palace that had weathered hundreds and hundreds of years. There was none of the damp, shrieking chaos that made up real temples; the stone and burnt clay spires held the silence of ruins. 

Ori had only heard about this temple from Mummum. It was a bit of a myth, etched and carved by her stories. Hundreds of years ago, a Raja had built this temple with stone and burnt clay. Hidden inside the delicate sculpture were shrines of Kali and Shiva. It was the place for which this little town was known.  

The reddish brown turrets created a nameless happiness in Ori’s chest. He walked towards them quickly. He had slipped out of the little house where the troupe had put up, without anybody watching him leave: the men smoking and toying with the wigs, the backstage players, the hairdressers and the make-up folks, and the set-boys shooting back and forth past the balcony. Even Pallabi, who always watched him out of the corner of her eyes, had not noticed: the show was about to be staged, and she had her nose buried in his mother’s hair, breathlessly going about her work and blind to the world.

He longed to go back home. His mother had brought him to a poor and cramped world. A trip on a crowded local train and a house where the men had to pee in the open and a lumpy bed crawling with bugs. His mother couldn’t go to the bathroom since they had arrived as there was only one bathroom with a real door and there were too many people crowded around it. Discomfort had tightened her features, strained her smile; it made him angry and ashamed. It always happened whenever he traveled with her troupe. He could never understand how she could change her clothes in a room full of other women who laughed and whispered and smoked cigarettes with a terrible smell.

Stepping out, he had thought of walking to the station and taking the train back to Calcutta. Would anybody miss him if he just went back? But he didn’t have the money to buy tickets.

Like a fairy tale, the cluster of stone turrets had suddenly warmed his heart. The dingy, smoke-filled house of theatre was gone from memory. The temple evoked ancient ruins, one of those shrines where nobody prayed, where people just strolled amid greenery surrounded by an earthy kind of cleanliness. But the place was not really ravaged. The delicate filigree of burnt clay grew alive and beautiful as he walked closer to the shrine-walls. 

There were only a few people around, lost in the sprawl of sculpture around the shrine and the trees around the courtyard. Dust hung in the air, a kind of dust that had a certain scent, the blend of wood, stone, and clay. Walking across the courtyard, he saw two beggar girls moving between the scattering of tourists, wheedling kindness out of them. The younger girl, he realized, was blind, and was being helped around by her companion. They seemed part of the temple, along with the red earth that stretched before the shrine and the white balustrade that surrounded the wide courtyard. 

He slowed down a little to watch them. They were both young, but the blind girl’s companion was older, perhaps eighteen or twenty, a slender woman in a dusty sari worn in the way that hinted at a life spent on the streets. Hesitantly, they moved towards a middle-aged man wandering around the courtyard. The woman held the blind girl by the hand. The girl was thirteen or fourteen, maybe, and beautiful in a raw and dusty way. 

Voices floated to him across the breeze. 

“Babu,” the blind girl murmured, groping her way towards the man. “I’m from a good family, but this is where fate has brought me. I was born in this town but have only heard about this temple.” Her voice dropped. “I hear it’s beautiful.”

Ori paused a few feet from a tree and watched them from its shade. He felt strangely drawn by the girl’s voice and the delicate smallness of her face. It was the kind of face that could distract a busy passerby, make him stumble over a pebble on the ground. 

Ori paused a few feet from a tree and watched them from its shade. He felt strangely drawn by the girl’s voice and the delicate smallness of her face. It was the kind of face that could distract a busy passerby, make him stumble over a pebble on the ground. She reached out and touched the man’s face, caressing his neatly shaved cheeks, his lips coarsened with age, her hand sliding down, along his neck, dipping into his shirtfront. “Hey!” the man protested, but his voice sounded weak. 

Sliding behind the tree, Ori felt safe and invisible.  

“She was born blind, the cursed little thing,” the older girl sighed. “She likes to touch people when she talks to them.”

 “What can I do?” The man protested weakly, cornered between the sprawling tree and the stump of an ancient pillar. “I’m just here to see the temple.”

The blind girl’s face touched the man’s chest. She took a deep breath, as if she were trying to inhale the man’s smell. Her face was like a small flower in half-bloom. Lifting it up to his, she lowered her voice, her words stumbling against each other. “I wait every day to see the face of Ma Kali in the shrine out there. She speaks to me in my dreams.” She pushed the man further back, into a warm crevice on the trunk of the banyan tree; her arm glided around his waist like a smooth snake. “I need your kindness.”

“The operation will cost six lakh rupees, Babu,” came her companion’s voice from close behind, the tone clearer, crisper. 

The sightless eyes of the blind girl fluttered furiously. She curled herself around the man’s rigid body, the perspiring shirt drawn over the bulge of his stomach, the expensive watch which she scratched with her nails like it was a callus on her own skin. Softly, her hand moved away from the watch, slid down his waist to his thigh. Her fingers dug into the fabric of his trousers, as if they were seeking something. 

“What are you doing?” the man said, breathing feebly. He glanced around quickly, and in spite of himself, his voice weakened. “There are people around.” Beads of sweat had appeared on his forehead. 

“She is such a happy girl, this little sister of mine,” said the older girl, in a soft and moist voice. “Young and healthy, she’ll play for hours and looking at her, you wouldn’t know that she was born under such an evil star.” 

The younger girl reminded Ori of a puppet pulled by strings. A puppet with hollows for eyes. She grasped the man’s right hand, brought it to rest on her chest. Limp at first, the man’s hand slowly woke to life on the girl’s chest, fingers spreading out across the top of the printed cotton frock.

Suddenly, he drew back his hand as though it had touched a live wire. Borrowing back his hand, he pulled out his wallet, and a large rupee-note from it. “Here, you keep this.” He looked at the older girl. “I hope the operation goes well.”

The older girl, as though in a stupor, took the note slowly from the man’s fingers. “Kali will bless you, Babu,” she said. “You are a good man.”

Pulled by her invisible string, the puppet girl drew away from the man. Her hand lingered below his waist and gently caressed his groin before it drew back. Her eyelids fluttered again. “God will be good to you, Babu.”

The girl turned to her right, a puppet blowing in the wind. Her closed eyelids faced Ori, leaning against the tree just a few feet away. It was muddling, like a beast’s cold breath on the back of his neck, the sight of the blind girl flashing a sharp smile at him. Forgetting, he stared back, then quickly turned his face away. 

The man had stepped away. As he walked past Ori, he ran his palm over his shirt, stretched it over his bulging middle, smoothed the fabric of his trousers below the waist.  

Ori felt drawn to the girls. But he walked away, towards the clean heart of the temple, the smooth marble courtyard that encircled the shrine. He didn’t want to look at the blind girl again, lock eyes with the fluttering eyelids, imagine that he’d seen her smile. 

As he walked away, he heard her voice behind him. “Babu, I’ve grown up here and have never seen this temple with my own eyes.” 

He couldn’t help but turn back and look. The two girls stood in the way of three young men, picnicking types from the city, their clothes and manners out of place in the earth-scented air. Intrigued, they had paused.

“Young and happy she is, this sister of mine,” Ori heard the older girl’s voice. “But the nerves in her eyes are all dried up.”

Ori felt restless. He walked away as fast as he could.

The darkness inside made the shrine look like a giant, toothless mouth. For a while, he stood there, drawn and repelled at the same time.

The temple was empty, except for a few loitering tourists and some stray dogs curled up outside the shrine. He walked up to the arch over the entrance to the shrine and stood there. The darkness inside made the shrine look like a giant, toothless mouth. For a while, he stood there, drawn and repelled at the same time. He walked around the shrine, across the narrow, blistered terrace that encircled it. Behind, the burnt clay surface of the terrace had merged into a jungle of weed. The wild bushes looked fresh and young next to the ancient filigree on the temple wall. He sat down on the ledge of the terrace, his legs dangling just above the cool and moist undergrowth.

“Hey kid!” a rough voice called out.  

It was the blind girl. She sat at the other end of the terrace. 

Hey kid!

She looked at him again, her eyes alive under lids that no longer fluttered aimlessly. She winked at him, and whistled again. “Hey kid!” 

She was leaning against her older companion, who sat with her back against the red and blistered wall of the shrine with her sari-wrapped legs dangling over the edge of the terrace. 

“Come on over here.” She called him. 

Ori wanted to turn back, slide along the terrace, around the shrine, past the red-gummed mouth. 

“Where’s your mum?” the girl asked.

“Getting ready,” he said hesitantly, “for her play.” 

“Play?” She frowned. “What play? Where are you from?” 

“Calcutta.” He marveled at her callused fingers, the thick rinds of dirt under her nails. 

“Fuck the whoreson,” she sat up and rubbed her left breast in exasperation. “My nipple still hurts, he tweaked it so hard!” 

“The old guy, didi?” asked the older girl.

“Didi?” He stared in shock, looking from one to the other and back.

“She’s younger than me,” Didi, the elder sister with dirt under her nails gestured towards her companion. “By four years. Just tall as a pole so you can’t tell.” 

Absently, she rubbed her sore nipple. 

“Not the old guy,” she grimaced. “He wet his pants when I touched him. The fat driver in the morning. Pockets dry too, I told you he’d be a waste of time. Slipped his hand through the top of my frock, the bastard!” 

Tall as a pole, her companion? Hardly. But she could say that, she who looked not more than a couple of years older than him. So she was a midget. But what about that childlike face? The reed- thin arms and the eyelids that fluttered madly whenever she was blind?

“You look much younger than her,” he said, haltingly.

“I look better blind too,” she looked at him sharply. “Mithu would yellow her sari if she tried to drain their pockets.” 

“He was watching us, the little creep,” she glanced at Mithu, “when I was milking the old guy. Chicken!” She spat at the shock of green hairweed behind the shrine. “Pulled out a fifty as soon as I squeezed his dick.” 

Dreamily, he came closer and sat down next to them. Revolted and fearful, he couldn’t take his eyes off this girl. Was she really older than Shruti? Twenty? Older? She had barely two inches over him. Those arms belonged to a girl younger than him. A child in every way but in her voice, a voice all spit and foul odor.

Didi. Big sis. Mithu called her didi. But Mithu would poop in her sari if she ever tried to lick the men dry of cash, caress their bodies like her little big sis to see them with lash-fluttering, dead eyes. 

They might have pulled out dark, powdery stuff from the folds of their saris and frocks, perhaps cheap cigarettes or tobacco hand-rolled in dried leaves, but they toyed only with the weed under their feet. Mithu chewed on a blade of grass, her eyes glazed, and her didi caressed herself with another uprooted tuft. The setting sun shone on the bare skin of her neck above her frock. Ori wondered why they let him linger. He had not seen anybody like them, with such coarse tongues and shooting eyes.

“My mother’s friends are putting up a play this evening on the big field.” He looked around quickly before he spoke.

“Must be the high-school football grounds.” Didi exchanged a glance with Mithu.

“Everything happens there,” Mithu said. “Carnivals, plays, and the big Kartik Pujo. Even the big gatherings before the elections.” 

“But it’s just the locals, none of the city folks go there.” Didi chewed a twig and blew air through her teeth. “We keep away. Bloody haramis, the local boys. They just paw at our boobs but never give us any cash, the whoresons.” 

“But they’ll throw cash at your mama when she dances there tonight, the haramis like the pricey city chicks.” She spat out the piece of bark she had chewed off.

They felt like a slap on his cheek, her spitting words. Heat flushed his brain. “She doesn’t dance. It’s a play.”

“A play,” Mithu yawned. “Dull blather.” 

They spat out words which rushed blood to Ori’s cheeks and made his heart beat faster. But it was easy to slip into that dark and moist world. They slithered through the tall grass and flung stones at the dogs who dozed behind the shrine. Mithu squished slimy worms with her bare big toe and beheaded them with her overgrown toenails. Didi whistled sharply. Mithu turned around and they were gone in a flash. A man had stepped out of a car in front of the temple courtyard. Quickly, the girls came back, Mithu biting her nails and Didi cursing her sharply. “Whoreson came with his wife and she’s a bloody hawk, shrieks at anyone stepping close to her husband.” Quickly, they forgot about it and flung stones at squirrels shooting across the tree trunks, who seemed to laugh at them before vanishing in the leaves.

The hours flew by and the sun went down behind the burnt red shrine. Didi stood on the terrace, stretching her reed-thin arms above her head, the hem of her long frock rising like a soiled curtain. The sun sank behind the forest of weeds, and didi swirled her tongue around, flinging words at Mithu, words nasty and nice, at the dull-green forest, the grazing calf lost there, the barking temple dogs. 

The color of the sky gave him panic. “It’s late,” he said. “What if they all leave for the play? How will I get there on my own?” 

Spitting the blades of grass from their mouths, the girls laughed at him.

“You’re not going to get lost, kid!” They laughed. “We know this town inside out.” 

***

Out there on the grassy football grounds, she was no longer his mother. She was a girl-woman who had left her teens through the rite of marriage, the iron and white shell bangles of wedlock around her wrists. As Ori made his way towards the makeshift stage set up on the far end of the field, his eyes were riveted to the red light cast over the bed of the dying peasant who was being tended over by his new granddaughter-in-law.

The play was etched in Ori’s mind. The Enchanted Garden. There was a lovely garden owned by an aging peasant, coveted by the zamindar of a village in British-ruled Bengal. The zamindar lies in wait for the peasant to die so that he can seize the property and grab the garden for himself. But the peasant grows more robust with age as he pushes past ninety, nearing a hundred, till the zamindar dies instead, his lust unsatisfied. Greed dies a hard death, passes on to the new zamindar, the dead man’s son, who lurks like a vulture, waiting for the old peasant to die. But the peasant grows healthier, nourished to senile beauty by a new granddaughter-in-law, till the health of the new zamindar begins to wane, prematurely, weighed down by desire haunting generations. 

“My mother,” Ori murmured, his eyes glued to the red glow of spotlight. The three of them were huddled together on the ground far from the stage, he and Didi and Mithu, chilled to the bone in the cold air without a blanket. My mother. He had pointed out, as if the figure in red had been standing right in front and could come over to them with a smile. 

The story was timeless. He’d forgotten how many times he had seen it performed. In an ancient theatre in central Calcutta, in a high-school auditorium in Bhubaneshwar organized by a club of expatriate Bengalis. He always knew what would come next. Love would kick out death. The caddish grandson, the only blood relation of the aging peasant, would lure a young woman, the lissome Padma, into marriage, bring her home to his ancient grandfather bitterly guarding his blooming garden. 

His mother played Padma even though Padma was younger than she was. 

On the ground, the crowd breathed heavily.

On stage, Padma, the sharp-tongued woman with a heart of gold, sat at the old man’s deathbed. She bloomed like the flowers in the garden. Her warmth spread to the old man’s deathbed and spilled color on the soiled sheets, the grainy texture of his skin. 

On stage, Padma, the sharp-tongued woman with a heart of gold, sat at the old man’s deathbed. She bloomed like the flowers in the garden. Her warmth spread to the old man’s deathbed and spilled color on the soiled sheets, the grainy texture of his skin. She gave him warm glasses of milk and the breezy air of hand-held fans. Distant on stage, she was less defined, younger, and her prickly youth, sharp words, shrill voice and all, passed into the old heap of the dying man, till a perky spark of life wriggled through his bent spine. 

Her hair was slim, sharp in its blackness, the angry tail of a mare chained by a wildflower, brushed into glistening, sweaty perfection by Pallabi.

Soon, the grandson shot out on the stage, euphoric at the news of his wife’s blushing pregnancy. Fruits mellowed in the old man’s garden, stooping close to the ground.

“I have to go pee.” Ori rose, his body a crooked letter on the grassy ground. Hesitantly, he looked at Didi and Mithu. It was dark and cold out in the field, and he didn’t want to go out there alone. 

“You hold our place, Mithu,” Didi said and got up. “I’ll go with the kid.”

The dry odor of burnt tobacco floated toward them as they made their way past the field of blanketed bodies, dark and covered like corpses scattered on the ground. 

The bodies thinned out as they moved farther and farther away from the stage. It was as if they were walking towards a cavity, a giant crater fringing a plateau on which the people sat, huddled around the dancing fire of the stage. 

“Over there.” Didi pointed her finger towards a thick growth of shrubs. “That’s where the men water the plants.”

The dank smell of urine guided them towards the shrubbed blackness. Like dogs, men liked to urinate against something, a wild knot of grass or a bush, never on naked flat ground.

He went and stood as close to the shrubs as possible. Hesitantly, he looked over his shoulder at the young girl a few feet behind him, her small frame nebulous in the dark. 

“Oh, I’m not looking,” Didi said sourly. “Not dying to see another dick right now!” 

A hot flush gripped his head and spread over his ears. Not daring to look back, he unzipped his pants, taking out his penis, its veins bursting with the need for release, grateful for the shadow of his own body that shielded it from the small woman behind him, small enough to pass as a fourteen-year-old. Bared, his skin felt naked in the cool air, and the sound of simmering urine against the bushes slowly filled him with warm shame, like blood rising in his cheeks. He wondered if the woman standing right behind him could see the glassy arc of piss shining through the dark.

But she had wandered, a little farther away; the rustle on the grass revealed the movement of her small feet. The stage was a tiny halo of light, far away in the darkness.

Tucking his limp penis back inside, Ori zipped his pants, the stench of stale urine suddenly hitting him with wild force. He stepped back.

“Done?” the small figure floated back towards him. “Let’s go back.” 

They walked back, but the flickering light of the stage muddled their steps. They wandered a little, and as they drew closer to the stage, they found themselves far from the place where Mithu was keeping their places warm for them. 

The stage seemed to have crept upon them unexpectedly. They could see the laughing, shrieking bodies on it through the hollow shell of the wings, a tiny passage created by sticking bamboo poles through a stretch of canvas, where characters vanished offstage for a few seconds before treading down the wooden steps. The two of them crept close, and then closer still, blinded by the angry flickers of light and the deepening human voices on the raised platform. 

Gupi, Padma’s husband, had just found out that his wife would give birth after another few months; his soul thrummed with joy. Standing close to the stretched canvas, Ori heard the thump of Gupi’s callused heels on the hollow wood of the makeshift stage, leaping from one end of the stage to another.

An old man with wobbly limbs climbed up the stairs to the wings. It was the shrill, tortured ghost of the dead zamindar. His doddery steps shook the wings. The naked flame of the lantern danced madly. 

Didi whispered: “Padma is going to hatch her egg, her tummy’s bloated like a bull’s hump.” 

For a millisecond, Ori dreamt of smashing a fist into Didi’s face, watching her writhe on the ground. But the dream melted in the cool darkness of the evening as he stood next to the wings, suddenly feeling warm. He looked up the narrow passage to the stage above the wooden steps. Warm with excitement, his eyes paused at the lantern with the naked flame, a salivating tongue of light tamed by a fragment of cloth wound around the mesh of wicker sticks where the lantern was perched. The coarse sheet was tied behind the lantern in a way that it served as a screen, keeping the gusts of wind from the tiny tunnel-like passage along which the characters stepped into the story.

Didi whistled. “They’ve stuffed a pillow under her petticoat, look at the way she waddles!” 

Carelessly, they had lit the passage. What happened to the glass dome that usually protected the lantern’s flame? The tongue swirled inside his head, licking the flesh of his brain, making him wince.

“Didi,” he whispered. “Look at the way they have set the lantern. If the wind gets to it the flame will set the canvas on fire.”

“Yeah,” Didi said. “The idiots, they don’t care.”

“If someone would just pull that cloth away.” 

The stage lights and the flicker of the lantern flame had tinged Didi’s face with a red glow. Her smooth face glistened with sweat.

“Wood and cloth,” she whispered, her voice trailing away. “It’d be like a firecracker.”

Breathing sharply, he climbed up the stairs. Didi followed him. They were like two dark insects, barely visible. The lantern was perched higher up than either of them could reach.

“I’ll lift you up,” Didi said, quickly bunching her arms around his light frame. Revolted, he was struck by the strength of her arms. She aimed him like a spear in the direction of the flame, which came closer to his face, blinding him. He tugged at the rectangular canvas wrapped around the mesh of wicker and realized quickly that it was tied more securely than it looked. The golden tongue slithered inside his head while he worked at the lantern, his thighs trapped between Didi’s strong arms and the warmth of her chest. In a few seconds, the cloth hung loose. Madly, the flame danced around.

Terrified that it might go out, he flung the end of the unhinged cloth over the flame. Immediately, the flame spilled over. The cloth meandered like a snake in the heat and scalded his face. Didi’s grip loosened, and he slid to the ground, their footfall drowned by the loud voices on the stage.

They scurried down the wooden steps to the damp grass below. He followed Didi, who knew better than to run behind the stage, into the emptiness where they would stand out as suspicious, ant-like figures. Instead, she slithered into the disheveled crowd of people close to the stage. 

On the stage, life struggled on, the greedy landlord now in a fit of rage provoked by the new life about to bloom in the house where he wished death to visit. As violence broke out between the characters, the left wing lit up, a sudden drunken burst of light in the narrow passage just beyond the stage.

Ripples went through the sea of people before the stage. Bodies startled, stirring and rising; bones creaked out of cold, lassitude, and blankets. A wicker fell to the left of the stage, a floating arrow in flames. 

Fat tongues of fire licked their way out of the wings and froze the landlord’s anger into stunned silence. They pulled out people not meant to be on stage, bewildered, directionless, and unleashed shrieks that were not meant to be heard in the play.

Ori stood on the road, far from the stage. Dreamily, he looked at the flames. They were no longer just inside his head. Not anymore. 

Saikat Majumdar is the author of a novel, Silverfish (HarperCollins India, 2007), and a book of criticism, Prose of the World (Columbia University Press, 2013). His new novel, The Firebird, from which this story is excerpted, will be published in June 2015 by Hachette India. He teaches world literature at Stanford University.