I wrote this little narrative based on a black-and-white photograph from a clip-art service. I sent the same picture to Priya, just to see what she’d come up with, and she wrote her own version. As expected, the two are completely different. Priya has written an entire short story, while mine is little more than a really long photo caption. We hope you like them both.
At the Drop of a Hat — by Charles
It wasn’t like she didn’t know the rules. She knew them all too well. When we started our strange little sect, Alice was the one who suggested the dress code. She said it would show loyalty and dedication, and the rest of us agreed. You had to wear a white shirt. If you didn’t have a white shirt, gray or beige was acceptable, as long as it wasn’t dark or colorful. No one was to smile. Ever. And most important, whenever you were outdoors, for any reason and no matter the weather, you were required to wear a hat. The punishment for failing to do these things seemed severe at first, but as time went by we all saw the wisdom in it. We couldn’t tolerate any kind of slack behavior. You would be shot. If the first bullet didn’t do the job, you would be shot again, and again, until you were dead. Then the rest of us would drink tea in your memory. It was, in its way, a beautiful notion. The tea part, at least.
That’s Alice, bareheaded and at the left of the picture. Why she showed up for that particular Saturday morning meeting without her hat was anybody’s guess. True, one of her cows had busted through the fence and escaped onto Highway 7. The sheriff had to be called and it took three deputies to get that cow back to her pasture, and of course they gave Alice a good scolding about wasting the county’s money for having to deal with such an ornery beast on an otherwise peaceful day. (That ornery beast I referred to just there was the cow, of course, not Alice.) She felt awful about it and offered to bake some cookies for all of the officers, which they agreed to and which she did; that didn’t completely balance out the inconvenience, but it sure helped. (That was Alice who baked the cookies, of course, and not the cow.) Anyway, maybe her hat flew off in all the confusion, or she forgot about it on account of she was late for the meeting.
The man with the rifle is Crazy Ben. He liked to do the shooting, and since he was the only one who owned a rifle, and because he had the finest hat, we always let him. Ben’s twin sisters, Bernice and Beatrice are seated just in front of him. They were in charge of slaughtering the chickens we raised. They seemed to enjoy that. There was some peculiar kind of violent streak that ran through their family, but no one ever talked about it because it wouldn’t have been polite, and particularly because Ben was the only one in the group who owned a rifle.
Pete is at the far left, the one holding the camera. He’s our picture-taker and he records each execution, for legal purposes. He tends to focus rather intently on his work. Last March, when we all went out to shoot Martha Johnson for wearing a bright pink dress, Pete got attacked by a bear and his left leg was chewed off. Luckily, Ben had the rifle already loaded, otherwise we’d have had to find a new picture-taker. Pete also apparently lost all sensation in his groin area, too, so he’s able to use the side rail post to hold himself vertical without so much as a flinch. But he still takes a heck of a picture. By the way, we asked Bernice and Beatrice to butcher the bear, but they refused, and said some things we’d never heard from any woman before, or any man for that matter.
I’m seated toward the back, the one with the tea cup in my hand. Just moments before, the truck had stopped abruptly and I had spilled some boiling water into my lap. I was trying to hold still for the picture, but unlike Pete, I could feel pain in that region of my anatomy. Luke, the man with his feet on the wheel, thought it was funny, although he didn’t dare laugh or even smile. Louisa, the woman to my left, kept telling me I should try iced tea, a suggestion that annoyed me almost as much as the original scalding.
The man at the very back of the truck, the one wearing dark glasses, is Alice’s husband, Will. There were rumors that he was going to attempt something daring. He might try to rescue Alice, even kill Ben and take over the group. But we’d heard such things before. Ben may have been crazy, but he never stopped paying attention. If the rumors had made their way to our ears, they’d found his, too. Like I said, it was a strange group. We were like a family. We worked together, ate together, and traveled around together. We were inseparable. All you had to remember was a white shirt and a serious face and you knew these people would always be there. They would love you and stand by you forever. And one other thing you had to remember, of course, was that they’d kill you at the drop of a hat.
* * * * *
The Whistle-Blower — by Priya
Shyamlal Boro didn’t see much in them, the firangi scoundrels. They were white-skinned devils, who brought the wrath of God on his land, his people, and his family – his home. He didn’t even find them worth his hatred.
They would have to pay for their sins, though. They would.
By 1835, Shyamlal Boro and the people of his community had succumbed. The Boros and the other tribes worked in their own ancestral fields for pittance to grow the latest discovery the English lords had made – the Assam Tea. It may have been a big conciliation, but it helped bring fish and rice to the plates, gave them roads and hospitals and schools. So what if most of the time these facilities had to be obtained through pleas and a compromised self-esteem? Some ran away to the then distant Guwahati to work as rickshaw pullers or sweepers or construction labourers, so that their children could study in the local schools.
But not Shyamlal. He wouldn’t run. He was obsessed with teaching them a lesson. Particularly the bandook shaitan – the gun wielding devil. They called him Simon sahib. The trigger happy Simon didn’t shoot people. He did shoot the sky when he wanted to shoot people, though. Sometimes some people wished his bullet had hit them, their misery was such.
Simon Forsyth was no shammer. He had nothing to hide, particularly his hatred for the black scum. He and his friends from the other sprawling tea estates often met to remind themselves about the good old Britannia. On some Sundays they took their women to the jungle after the mass. It was meant to be just a merry jaunt to see the quaint Assamese people, but it mostly ended up with some adventure with the natives. A welcome change for the seekers of a daily ‘kill’. The ladies were fearless, the men fervent. But Simon was the keenest of them all. He sometimes wished Gwen could match his passion. But she was different.
Servants have a way of knowing – a way of perceiving the unspoken. And they like to discuss. It had only been a year since Simon sahib’s memsahib first set foot in the Barak valley, and the villagers knew that Simon and Gwen weren’t quite made for each other. They could live together in one room for the rest of their lives and still feel no need to communicate. It was a matter of common joke that they talked through the helpers at the house.
Their bungalow was set amidst the tall teaks and sprawling tea bushes. Painted white, it invited the visitor to see what was beyond the chintz curtains. The verandah circling the entire building indicated what was to be expected inside. Wood. Lots of it.
Shyamlal delivered beeswax to the bungalow every week. Well, not just delivered, but also polished every single wooden object inside the house. It was relatively new, so it needed a weekly coat of polish to buff the surfaces, to make them shimmer and shine like the memsahib’s silver-framed mirror.
Gwen Forsyth was sitting under the huge linen fan that spanned almost the entire drawing room that morning. Two women sat on the floor, pulling the ropes attached to the fan, making it sway ever so gently. It wasn’t all that humid, or Gwen would’ve goaded them to show some spirit.
“Memsahib, where today?” Shyamlal asked Gwen.
“Tea room, Shyamlal. There’s a special batch today.”
Simon’s tea estate had exported an experimental batch to the distant Hills Bros three months back to try out a possible collaboration. The packaged tea had arrived this morning.
“And do the table, too.” Though she couldn’t be bothered where he went to polish, Gwen found it all right to direct him on some days. In general, she was tired of the incessant humidity that made her want to either kill someone, or herself, to just somehow, for Pete’s sake, deliver her from this hell. She had no interest in running the house. She was tired of Assam, and she was tired of India, and she was tired of her mother’s decision to get her married to an unfeeling monster.
Shyamlal entered the tea room and started his work. He began with the doors and wall panels. They were Burmese teak and would require the better half of the day. He’d do the table later.
Shyamlal was sweating with the humidity. He wouldn’t have noticed it, though. He had been living with it all of his life. The sun was peeping in through the skylight; the wall panels and doors were done. The tea table sat next to the French windows overlooking the very English garden. It was Indian rosewood, the tea table. Not quite the rich, dark colour it eventually takes, but it was getting there. Changing the tin of wax, he began polishing the table. His hands moved in swift circles on the table top. Though the smell of beeswax didn’t bother him usually, he had carefully tied a piece of clean with cloth over his nose for today’s polishing. It must’ve been the heat and the rivers of sweat streaming down his forehead.
It was almost four now, when Simon sahib was due to come back for tea. Shyamlal’s work was done just in time. He picked up his polishing aids, carefully washed his hands at the water hand-pump outside, blowing his usual whistle. The deliberate, whispered waft merged with the grim purr of Simon’s car approaching the gate.
It hardly took the sahib a few minutes from his office to the bungalow. He mostly walked, but chose to drive back today. Walking in through the huge door especially designed to optimise ventilation, he heard Gwen call for the maid.
“Doya! Doya! Nariyal paani laao,” Gwen was losing her patience. Where was the coconut water?
Simon winced. Who drinks coconut water at tea time?
He went straight to the tea room, expecting the tea to be laid in another 5 minutes.
The jasmines were in full bloom. He had to admit, if only to himself, that the smell was divine. It drifted in every now and then, filling the room with a bit of earth, a bit of sky, and a lot of life.
There was much to be done here. So much to do! The land needed control, its humans needed civilisation. It was a fantastic prospect for Simon Forsyth, who didn’t find much to do in Britain. Everything was already perfect there. Here, the jungles were wild, the animals strange. The climate was killing, and the population despicable.
So much to do, it gave him a headache. And the humidity didn’t help either. Where was the tea?
“Doya! Get the tea, for the love of God!”
He never felt quite all right when he thought about all the things he had to do here to bring its people to their place. His heart pounded, his blood flooded the veins as if the sluices had just been opened. His limbs trembled with passion. Today the ferocity of his sentiments was terrific; perhaps because of today’s rebellion at the estate office about the missing woman last seen around Simon’s outhouse. Yes, that must have been making all that trembling and pounding so bloody suffocating.
“Doya!” He called, but didn’t quiet make it.
Doya was panicking. Rushing out of her mistress’ bedroom, she muttered to herself about Gwen’s foolishness. When it was tea time, why did she ask for nariyal paani? She didn’t like it all that much either.
The tea trolley was outside the bedroom where she had left it. She rolled it in to the tea room, hoping that Simon was in a good mood. Her hopes might well have been answered. He looked like he’d chosen to take a nap right there in the tea room! How curious. He never did that.
“Sahib, tea,” she preferred never to look at his face.
If she had seen it today, she’d have seen the blood making its way out of his nose. Finally liberated.
If she knew a little more about her own land, she would have smelled the peculiar smell of gaaj. The fumes of this herb could paralyse and kill in minutes when mixed with beeswax and then rubbed on wood. Losing its toxicity equally quickly, it left behind a sweet smell.
If Simon’s eyes could actually see in the direction in which they were pointed, they would glimpse the jasmines mixing with the roses outside. But it was too late for that now.
Sitting on the huge diwan in her bedroom, Gwen was fanning her wrecked nerves when she felt a sudden urge to whistle; something she did only when she was happy.
Possibly unfamiliar words in The Whistle-Blower, in their order of appearance:
firangi — literally, ‘of a different colour’. Used for the British when they were in India. Now a common name for any white person.
Boro — One of the tribes of Burmese origin spread over north-eastern India. The Boros were among the several tribes incorporated as cheap labour in the tea plantations of Assam.
Guwahati — Now the capital of the state of Assam.
Barak valley — One of the valleys popular for growing the strong, malty Assam tea.
memsahib — Indian adaptation of madame. Originally used for the English women, subsequently for any woman of a ‘higher’ stature. Becoming just a little derogatory in some situations now.
Doya –Mercy. Doya is the Assamese/Bengali pronunciation of the Hindi counterpart Daya
Nariyal paani laao — “Bring the coconut water”
gaaj — a fictitious herb.