Sirhanna by Salil Chaturvedi

When the floods came Ramakant was sleeping, his cherished pillow half under his head, one arm around it as if protecting it from something.


The pillow, Ramakant’s most favourite object in the world, was filled with the soft cotton of the Semal tree that grew on the edge of his one-bigha field. Every year he gathered the cotton that was scattered onto his field by the March wind. He’d give it to his wife and then lovingly watch the pillow grow centimeter by centimeter as his wife stuffed the fresh cotton expertly into the pillow. Ramakant found himself thinking of the pillow as a maturing child, but in truth, it was more like a trusted companion, cushioning his head for hundreds of miles on his annual migration to the city.


In early April, just after the harvest of the Rabi crop, Ramakant boarded the train from Dhenaji in Bihar, to Delhi where he ran a ‘relay’ paan shop in partnership with some of his village buddies. When one of the friends had to return home, usually summoned by a desperate wife on the other end of a phone line, another arrived from the village to look after the shop and its finances. The most important thing was to ensure that the regular patrons didn’t switch loyalties. Customers were, after all, creatures of habit. Some would strike up a conversation as they waited for their change, or inquire about the families left behind in Bihar. But for most, stopping at the paan shop was part of their daily routine, a routine that could, if one was not careful, easily change.


Ramakant had lived most of his life in Dhenaji and had gone to the village school for two years before the teacher’s relentless thrashings had driven out all urge for learning. But that’s not to say Ramakant had no education. He had picked up the Hindi alphabet and could read the newspaper that was pasted on the walls of the village panchayat. Every morning, he walked a kilometre to the panchayat office, brushing his teeth with a neem twig, and stood in front of the newspapers chewing on the twig and mumbling or clucking his tongue in response to the news. If something was particularly off the mark, he would spit and exclaim, ‘Bakwaas!’


Over the years, Ramakant had developed a deep distrust of journalists, for what he read in the newspapers often did not relate to what he saw around him. He felt that the sophisticated folk were extremely good at looking at things in isolation, but they failed to make the connections. And what were things without their connections?


It was during a train journey to Delhi that Ramakant had first realised that pillows collected dreams. That year – the year of this realisation – whenever he used someone else’s pillow, he was hounded by visions: he would dream about strange events, ghoulish monsters and sensuous parees, and sometimes about the other person’s wife, often naked, calling out to him with outstretched arms. He’d wake up with a start, troubled and guilt-ridden, light a bidi, and stare at the darkness and think about his wife in his attempt to exorcise the other women. In the process, he had seen his wife with the physical attributes of the wives of all his friends. He didn’t share the details of these dreams with any of his friends, of course, but he stopped sharing pillows.


Once, hoping for some explanation, he told one of his regular customers, a college student, about his experiences with the pillows. The student, after having encouraged him with the story, had eventually burst out laughing. ‘It’s their education,’ Ramakant thought to himself, ‘It comes in the way of belief.’


Now, as he was dreaming a pleasant dream, Ramakant was woken up by his wife’s vigorous shaking. The floods were upon them and the water was rising fast. Ramakant sat up with a start. It was about four in the morning and there was commotion all around. Wading in knee-deep water, he rushed out of his hut and found his neighbour’s wife pushing a huge cooking pot ahead of her. In the pot sat her two-year old daughter. ‘Be careful what you cook today!’ Ramakant called out and rushed back inside to gather his family and belongings.


The water was rising quickly and was now up to his thighs. Following the example of his neighbour’s wife, Ramakant sat his two sons aged four and two, and his one-year old daughter into buckets while his wife quickly gathered her jewellery – a silver waist band and two sets of silver bracelets. She hoped that Seth Naval Kishore, the local pawnshop owner, had had the time to save the villagers’ belongings. Ramakant looked around the house but he couldn’t think of what to save; everything was already under water. Then he remembered his pillow. He swam in to retrieve his pillow, emerging with it grasped in his teeth. He could see his wife and children ahead of him, at the mercy of the strong current. ‘Train linewa ke saathe saathe chal jahiyein!’ he shouted, the pillow clutched firmly in his teeth, muffling his instructions.


The railway track ran along the eastern edge of the village. On a raised embankment, it offered a thin strip of safety from the floods. The previous year, the entire village had occupied the railway line, cooking, crapping and cursing on Indian Railway property for one whole week before the waters had receded. After the initial shock, people had joked about which railway compartment they were in. Those who managed to save a mattress or a sheet were in the first-class, while others who slept on the wooden sleepers of the railway tracks were obviously in the lowly general compartments. But they all shared a common toilet – the vast expanse of floodwaters on both sides of the embankment. On the third day, Air Force helicopters had dropped ‘relief bombs’ consisting mostly of food grains, candles, kerosene oil, polythene sheets and salt. These bombs were not meant to explode, but some did, spilling the emergency rations as children cheered and leapt into the water to retrieve what they could.

But that was last year. This morning’s flood was fierce and had taken everyone by surprise. As Ramakant swam after his wife and children, the weight of the wet pillow tired his jaw muscles. He could see that they would never be able to make it to the railway line. His wife’s saree had ballooned in the water and she was spinning like a top. The children went bobbing and bawling ahead of her in the temporary safety of their buckets. Ramakant tried swimming towards his family but the current was too strong. His arms were tiring quickly and he was being swept away at a diagonal from his family. He was about to give up when the roof of the panchayat building loomed ahead. He paddled furiously towards the building but only managed to close the gap a little. As he glided past, two men standing on the corner of the roof lunged for him. They managed to grab his pillow and reeled him in like a fish with bait stuck in its mouth. It was a full five minutes before Ramakant could unlock his jaw and release the pillow.


There were about twenty people on the roof. Seth Naval Kishore was one of them. ‘Baboo, Baboooo...’ Ramakant called out the name of his eldest son as soon as he got his jaws moving. To his amazement, he got an answering call from his wife.


‘Tu kehar chi?’ he shouted towards the voice.


‘I’m on Pushpa’s roof. The kids are with me … everything’s all right. Where are you?’ his wife shouted back.


‘On the panchayat roof. Listen, Seth Naval Kishore is with me!’


‘Did he save my jewellery?’ she responded almost as a reflex.


‘No. But I managed to save my life!’ interjected Seth Naval Kishore.


‘Did you manage to save the pillow?’ asked Ramakant’s wife, ignoring Seth Naval Kishore.


‘Well, the pillow saved my life instead!’ shouted back Ramakant.


‘It’s a special pillow,’ called out Ramakant’s wife.


‘Hau!’  agreed Ramakant.


As dawn broke, people were ferried across roofs on makeshift boats to unite them with their families. The water level was still high and there was no sign of the railway track. The panchayat’s roof, being the largest and sturdiest, accommodated the most number of families. A quick assessment of damage was undertaken. Someone reported seeing two boys on a buffalo that had gone sweeping by, but they seemed to be from another village. At final count, it seemed that one-third of the population was missing.


Everyone agreed that this had been the worst flood in living memory. Ramakant was quite certain that the answer lay in the newspaper reports, if only one could join the dots. Since the beginning of the monsoon he had been reading that most of the reservoirs in the country had been close to full within the first month of the rains. He was quite sure that the dams had released water without informing anyone. Everyone laughed at this preposterous thought and told Ramakant to keep his theories to himself.


Just then, a surge of water swept over the roof. Miraculously, everyone managed to cling on to something or someone. Those that were taken by surprise were saved by the raised parapet of the roof. The only person missing was Ramakant who had been standing on the ledge to address everyone.


Right where he’d been standing lay his pillow, drenched with his dreams.



Salil Chaturvedi writes short fiction and poetry. His stories have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Himal, Indian Quarterly and Indian Literature. Comics and haiku are old loves. His graphic story, The Pink, appeared in Pao, a graphic anthology, and his haiku have appeared in Modern Haiku, Chrysanthemum, Wild Plum and Frogpond. He was the Asia region winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2008, and the winner of the Unisun/British Council Short Story Competition 2007. He currently lives in Goa.