*** I ***
It was a crisp midday. The scorching sun sat right in the middle of the sky, watching over the homebound school children. Most of these children preferred walking, nay running. In the morning, they waited for their friends by the bridge over the lake and ran together to the school. Then at midday, they ran back home, holding their backpacks closely to their chests, racing with each other, or with the rickshaws that tried to pass them by. On that day, while chasing each other through the road like a bunch of happy creatures, Kheya and her companions confronted an exciting group of people, shouting at someone in an ecstatic voice: 'PAGLEE, PAGLEE, PAGLEEEEE!'
Kheya and her friends peeped through the tightly knitted crowdandsaw the target subject: a shabby, skeletal woman—visibly irritated—standing at the center, holding a bitten-old burlap sack tightly under her right arm. She was stark naked. Kheya inadvertently dropped her backpack and ran home. She grabbed a sari from her mother's room and went back to the place where the naked woman stood like a brittle sculpture, while the crowd around her kept jeering, screaming, and laughing for no reason. Kheya dashed through the mob and put the sari over the woman's body. She then picked up her backpack from the ground and walked toward home. The woman wrapped the sari around her waist. She threw cursing words at the nonchalant faces of the diminishing crowd as she picked up her burlap sack and started walking—like a diagonal shadow—behind Kheya.
“Why are you following me?” Kheya asked.
“Take your sari back. I hate wearing clothes.” She said.
“Clothes are nuisance; when it rains, clothes get soaked and I have to take them off anyway to dry them. Then when it's too hot, I get soaked in sweat and have to take them off to dry them in the sun. I can't run fast when I'm wearing a sari. What's the point of wearing them?“
“But you need to wear clothes.”
Kheya's thirteen years old brain fell short in its effort to explain the importance of clothes, especially for a woman, on whose body God had hidden all His shame. But the woman was adamant. She did not want the sari. Finally, Kheya made peace with her by promising to give her a full kilo of rice as alms if she kept it. Frustrated, the woman tore the sari in two parts, wrapped one half around her waist, and wore the other half like a headscarf. "This part will be my towel," she murmured, as she wrapped her dreadlocks in it. When Kheya came out with the rice and a plate of food, she found the woman on the porch, sitting bare chest, singing and laughing and talking to herself. She brought an old blouse from her mother's closet and gave it to the woman. “Wear this,”she said. “You must eat quickly and go before my mother sees you.”
The woman attacked the plate like a starving animal. Kheya's cat wiggled her tail and meowed constantly, pleading for some fishbone. But the woman chewed and swallowed every piece of fishbone and ate every morsel of food and then licked the plate clean with her tongue.
“What's your name?“ Kheya asked.
The woman did not answer.
“This is my cat. Her name is Biral. I am Kheya. What's your name?”
“That's what they named you. But what's your real name? You must have a family somewhere—and kids—maybe. Where are they—why don't they take care of you—where do you live—and— wait, why are you taking the blouse off? Put it on, I say put it on!”
“It's too hot—and—your questions make no sense.”
The woman put the blouse in her burlap sack and walked away.
*** II ***
Kheya was the oldest child of the family. But because she was yet to learn the reasons to act like a girl, Kheya was an untamed spirit. Her mother did not know how to quarantine her temperament and blamed her father for failing to play his role. But her father actually knew how to keep Kheya on the leash by giving her rewards for every logical deed. He gave her the right to earn two hours of freedom outside the house in the afternoon and buy an ice cream from the vendor if she finished her homework on time. Theirs was a big house that stood right at the corner of the big lake.
The bridge over the lake connected their part of the area with the west side of the town. The rail station was a few kilometers away up in the north and the Buddhist temple was right in the southern end of the big road. All the children from the neighboring areas spent their afternoons in the big playground across the bridge. Adults took their leisurely walks by the lake, and vendors crowded the sidewalks of the bridge, selling ice cream, jhalmuri,and mango pickles. The ice-cream man was the most popular of all vendors. He came every afternoon, paddling his Igloo ice cream van, and stayed surrounded by the thirsty children. On his way home, he stopped by Kheya's house, where he would find Kheya—sitting in the corner of their big boundary wall—waiting.
It was their daily routine. Every afternoon, the old man had to stop under the big tree by that house. Kheya would come running and ask, “Igloo uncle, which flavor do you think I will buy today?” In response, the old man had to say, “chocolate bar,” because that was the only kind she liked, and he always made sure to save one chocolate ice-cream bar for this last customer of the day. Then the old man would sit on his van, and Kheya would go back to her usual spot at the corner of the brick wall. She would then chatter about her daily life, and in return, the old man would tell her some stories of his dead-old days. The old man was really old. His long beard went white, his face wore wrinkles of the bygone days, and his eyes were almost out of their brightness. But those dull eyes shone like sun when he started telling stories.
That day, when Kheya was telling him about her encounter with a strange woman who did not like wearing clothes, the woman herself appeared from nowhere and started shouting.
“What's that you are eating? Give me that. Give me now!”
Kheya handed her the half-eaten ice cream. The woman sat on the stairs by the porch and slurped it in one big bite. Then she stood up and said: “You are a bad person. You made me wear these itchy clothes!!” She threw the ice cream stick at Kheya and left.
She came back the next afternoon and demanded her share of the ice-cream. Soon, she became a part of the usual routine. Every afternoon, Kheya ate half of the ice-cream and gave the rest to the grumpy woman. While Kheya and the old man shared their stories of adventures, the woman sat in the background—eating the ice-cream and constantly scolding Kheya for being a bad person.
“What's your friend's name?” The old man asked Kheya one day.
“Paglee,” answered the grumpy woman.
“Igloo uncle, can you please tell her that Paglee can't be someone's name? She must try to remember her real name, shouldn't she? What if she gets lost at the train station and we have to go look for her? How will we find her?”
“We will ask people if they'd seen a paglee begging at the station. And they'll show us at least a few hundreds of her kind; then we will identify her by her dreadlocks maybe.” The old man said.
The woman paid no attention to them. She talked incessantly about meaningless things. Sometimes she talked about the monsters that came and ate her at night when she slept on the bench by the train station. Sometimes she talked about a house that was once full of people. Sometimes she talked about winds that could blow breaths of death and water that could rise above the sky and take away with it a home full of goods.
“But what happened to the children?” Kheya asked.
“The ones that lived in that house that got washed away.”
“How'd I know? Why are you asking me that?” The woman scratched her head vigorously. “You know why I don't like you? It's because you ask too many questions.”The woman noticed a cluster of red ants swarming over the ice cream drop on the ground and said in a worried voice: “They're drowning in the water!“ She held the ice-cream stick on the ground and let a few ants crawl on it. Then she put the stick in her hair.
“What are you doing? They will bite you!” Kheya screamed.
“Won't be worse than lice bites. Your words itch my head. The ants will help me with the itch.”
“Words aren't lice. Your head itches because you have lice and because your hair is dirty. You should wash your hair with water and…”
“You are a crazy girl. You think water can clean? Wait a minute!” The woman's face suddenly brightened up with a smile. She took out a little brown packet from her sack and gave it to Kheya. “I was at the Buddhist temple this morning when they were handing out food. I saved this for you.”
Kheya found a laddu and a vegetable samosa inside the packet. She took the laddu and offered the samosa to the ice-cream man. But the old man politely refused.
“Igloo uncle, I'll let you have the laddu next time she brings me a treat. I promise!”
“Yes, next time.” The old man smiled and left, paddling his rickshaw van, with his two exhausted feet.
*** III ***
“If he doesn't show up soon, I'm going to eat the laddu.” Kheya declared.
“My head is itching. I want ice-cream,” said the woman.
But the man did not show up that day, or the next day, or the day after. Finally, tired of waiting, Kheya proposed that they should go look for him in the neighborhood. Maybe he had found another house where lived another thirteen- years old girl, who had a cat with a name and a grumpy friend with no name.
“Sounds possible,” said the woman as she picked up a tiny lizard and put it on her head.”
“Is that a lizard? Eeeewww!”
“This world is a strange place! People
seem least bothered about the most uncanny things—like the power of monsters scream in fear at the sight of a harmless lizard.” The woman picked up her burlap sack and went with Kheya in search of the ice-cream man.
They walked through every street and stopped at every corner, hoping to hear the familiar rhythmic sound of a bell followed by a friendly voice: “Tingaling, ting, ting. Ice-cream, ice-cream, ice-cream!”
They walked for hours, but saw no sign of any ice-cream man anywhere.
“My lizard is hungry,” said the woman. They were walking past Kheya's school. There was a guava tree by the big house in the corner of the big intersection across from the school. A girl from Kheya's class lived in that house. She had promised to give Kheya some guavas when they were ripe, Kheya told her companion.
“But they are already ripe, I can see from here!” The woman said. She asked Kheya to hold her sack and wait under the guava tree. She then climbed up the tree like one skilled squirrel. Kheya stood under the tree, holding a ragged sack that contained in it every belongings of that woman. It smelled of food of various kinds—sweet, spicy, savory, greasy, stinky, and stale. A cooking pot and a rusty enamel plate, a tin mug, and a tattered piece of a blanket peeped through the gaping mouth of the sack. Holding the sack tightly, Kheya kept her eyes focused at the tree, where the woman was moving from branch to branch looking for the perfectly ripe guavas.
“I have plenty of guavas! We should save some for the ice-cream man, no?” The woman screamed jovially.
A bus boy from the neighborhood teashop heard her and gave out an excited holler: “Look, look! The Paglee, the Paglee! She's stealing guavas from the tree!”
Within seconds, Kheya found herself surrounded by dozens of strangers. The crowd suddenly started to grow big and loud, chanting one word in a rhythmic resonance: PAGLEE, PAGLEE, PAGLEE. Some gathered a few rocks and started throwing at the woman, who by this time felt trapped and was too puzzled to come down from the tree.
“Let her come down!” Kheya shouted.
“Are you with her? You don't look like a beggar's kid. Has she kidnapped you?” Someone asked Kheya in a compassionate voice.
“Let her come down please!” Kheya kept pleading hysterically.
The woman tried dodging the rocks that were being thrown at her, but at one point, feeling utterly frustrated, she started throwing the guavas at the crowd. The mob got flared with anger and burst with energy. They vowed to save the guavas and the kidnapped girl from the wrath of a crazy woman. Some held Kheya strongly while others climbed the tree to capture the culprit.
“Where did she kidnap you from? Where do you live? What's your name?”
“Please don't hit her! Please let her go!” Kheya kept saying, disregarding all the questions.
“You don't remember your name? Are you her daughter? Are you crazy too?”
From up the tree, the woman saw Kheya's fear-stricken face and yelled in utmost desperation. “Break free from them and run! Run! Or, they'll name you like me!”
Kheya bit the hands of her captor and sprinted as fast as she could—like a hunted deer—holding the burlap sack close to her chest, before they could take away her name.
Fayeza Hasanat is an author, translator and educator. She teaches English at the University of Central Florida.