Mattresses

(A story written in haste. From tweets that would not let me sleep. Based on a nightmare. Written so fast, that punctuation would have slowed me down. One day, I shall edit, punctuate, clean up the story, which has to be a work of fiction, surely. Till then, this )

(oh, and gadda=mattress, gaddas=mattresses)

“Hurry up, and open the lock!”, whispered an impatient voice through the cold fog.

“I’m trying”, she hissed back. “It’s stuck”.

Her slim fingers were stiff in the cold winter. It was dark, the lock frozen in the frost of a chill Delhi night. It would be dawn in a few hours, and the lock would have been easy in the mellow warmth of the day.

“Let me help you”, her younger sister said. Together, they blew into the lock, their sweet warm breath melting the icicles in the cold metal. The lock came alive now in her hands, and Pari turned the key with ease. The heavy lock gave way, belying the weakness of the thin wooden door that led them indoors.

Footsteps crunched on the ground behind them, the frost still crisp on the ground.

“What took you so long bhai?”, Pari asked. “We have so much to do before they all arrive. They will be here soon.”

“The rickshaw wanted more money.”

“Why?” demanded the youngest, always ready to fight for her rights. “It is always seven rupees from the hall to here. Ten for three people.”

“I had to give more”, he said, tired already. Gesturing to the strings of lights adorning their small house, he said, “This. He said it is a ‘shadi ka ghar’. A house of marriage. I had to give him more.”

Pari smiled a half smile. “You bhai, if we left it to you, the marriage costs would have doubled”. He smiled back. They both knew how they had saved to spend well for this wedding. It was their father’s second marriage, but they did not mind that. The new mother was not bad looking, and father had beaten them less since he took on with her. It would be good to have someone to share the burden of the house.

Maybe, Pari thought, now she could go out and work. All her friends did, and they all had money for nice things like lipsticks and nail polish and new salwar suits. Some days, they even out to the markets together, bunking work. She looked after her father’s house, and had to stay at home. Even today, she was in charge of getting the house ready for the guests before they came back from the wedding ceremonies before dawn.

She had stayed on as long as she could at the wedding, and now they had very little time before the others returned, bringing back a new bride in a triumphal procession.

“The gaddas are upstairs, run and get them bhai!”, she cried out! The three siblings got to work quickly, handing over things to each other quickly, used to working together in silence with speed.

“The front room can take twelve gaddas”, Pari declared

“Ten” her brother said.

“Make it twelve”, Pari insisted. “The room is big enough.”

They were very proud of their new house. Baba had bought it just weeks ago from a local family. It was still painted a colour chosen by the old owners, but that could not be helped. Pari planned to paint it pink when they had the money for it. In this house, there was enough room for everybody. And there was a terrace too, where she could escape to see the sky. Even the stairs to the terrace were covered with a pucca roof, and that is where they had kept the gaddas that had been hired from the shop in the market.

She sent her brother up to throw them down to her. She and her sister caught them, and quickly made up beds on the floor in the front room. She had hired forty gaddas, for that is the number that makes up a wedding. She knew that many in the family would not be able to come. Times were bad, and it was not safe to step out, they had heard.

Most people had phoned to say they would come…”but,let us see”, they said, after a pause. They could all see. Lives were precious. But it was a wedding in the family after all, and they would not be able to live down the shame if the arrangements were not good enough. It is okay to have a few extra gaddas, she thought. She would handle Baba’s anger when the time came. Surely he would not be angry, now that the new wife was coming to make him happy.

She quickly went to the kitchen to put on a large pan of water to boil the tea. Everyone would want tea and biscuits when they came back. It was cold, and there were ceremonies to welcome the bride. They would not sleep till dawn, she was sure.

The middle room had been kept for the groom and bride. Everyone had to walk through it to get to the kitchen and bathroom at the back of the house, but it could not be helped. She had bought long garlands of flowers to partition the bed, and added a bright bedsheet as a curtain. The room looked perfect, and she resisted the temptation to fit two more gaddas in the space where people would walk through. Not today, she thought. Let Baba tell his bride that he had made a whole room only for her.

“Is it all ready?” she called out.

“Done! All the beds are ready.”

“Did you fill the water? Is there soap where it should be?” She called out as she rushed out of the kitchen. She could hear them arriving down the street. A wedding party is a loud business even in troubled times.

The front room twinkled in the flashing lights from the string put up outside. On off. On. Off. The lights racing to catch each other in an unending game, as if there was never going to be an end to the cycle.

Within minutes the house was full of relatives. The bride giggling. Her father looking on proudly, his laughter joining in with the other men. Singing. Her aunts singing bawdy songs out of tune. Tea being served, with a large tray of rectangular biscuits. Little children asleep in unlikely places. Slowly, the best corners were occupied by the most careful aunts, handed over to older uncles drifting off to sleep. The tea finished, the laughter and songs turning to chatter, as stories of family weddings and old scandals were retold. The bride’s eyes were heavy with sleep, the groom’s with expectation. Pari led her out of the front room, clearing the corner for the aunts to sleep.

Her brother and sister were already asleep in the kitchen. Fewer guests meant that each of them got a gadda to themselves. They’d better not get used to it, Pari thought. There won’t be a soft mattress for all of them anymore. The mattresses they had would go to the middle room. Everything would belong to the middle room now, she realised with a sigh.

Leaving her Baba to look after his wife, Pari looked for a place for herself. The house was full, like her heart. She liked it this way, looking after her own. She had done this since her mother died when she was six. It was okay if there was no room here. Her father’s house now had another floor with a roof.

She climbed the stairs, only to meet a mountain of gaddas. All tumbled over each other. Twenty six gaddas, waiting to do their job. To be a barrier between their person and the hard sharp world. To ensconce. To protect, even if for a while. To be there, to say, it’s tough out there, but here, you will be all right. She would not have a gadda everyday, she knew. Today was a day when riches flowed like a river.

She snuggled into the tiny space between the gaddas and the halfwall along the stairwell, pulling a few over her for warmth. I could bury myself in these gaddas, she thought, as she drifted off to sleep.

They were all still sleeping, when the mobs came.

“It’s this house!” they called out. Voices hoarse, chants repeated. Aunts screaming. Uncles and cousins sliced in their sleep. Children shrieking, suddenly silenced.

Pari heard it all.

Frozen, she heard the chants grow louder as bloodlust took over the mob. There were five- ten – then fifteen or more voices. They were in her house. They were here.

She could not move, and move she must. She must save them. She needed help.

Her voice was stuck in her throat, her bile rising, her gob trapped. Or was that her tongue, she no longer knew. She knew that voice, it was her brother – calling out – “Who are you…?”
Brother mine, shut up and hide, her mind cried.
But her brother could not even finish his question when she heard more chants, louder as if victorious.
Familiar chants. Tell them, she shouted, but the words were inside her.

Tell them who we are! They will stop.
But a mob has no eyes, no ears, no brain.
There was no stopping them. They were already in the kitchen. In a minute, they would be pounding up the stairs, coming for her. She struggled, quietly, desperately, making her way under the gaddas. They were heavy, but she was filled with a frenzy now, an urgency that gave her strength she had not known before. Seconds, she had seconds. The tumbled mattresses made room for her, doing their job. To be a barrier between the hard, sharp world and her. It came for her, but could not reach her. She stayed still. Quiet. Not a breath came out of her, much like her family downstairs.
She dared not, they could not.

“What is this?” cried a strong loud voice downstairs.

The footsteps rushed down the stone steps. She was alone again. She could breathe.

She heard them downstairs.

“What have you done?” The voice had power. Surely their leader.

“Do you not have eyes?” The leader was angry.

A murmur. A whine of protest.

“How could we know?” called out one voice. Bravery of another kind.

“The house was on the list”, cried out another.

“We got the list”, chimed a third.

“You told us to follow the list”, called out another.

“One of our own”, roared their leader. “You attacked one of our own! During a wedding! The whole family. How could you not see one of our own”

“All wedding lights look the same”, replied another.

As they filed out of the house, the lights kept twinkling, chasing one another, as if in a race that would never end.