Fiction by Aishwarya Marathe
I left, and when I returned, I found nothing—only stillness, where once bloomed bushels of wheat swaying with the wind, where once rows of sugarcane zigzagged like caterpillars through mud. A sky muffled by buildings bore down on me, and I felt I might collapse under its weight. Though I blinked in disbelief for minutes, the sight before me stayed put, stubborn. It did not dissipate as dreams do within moments of awakening. It did not drift away like sand through a child’s fingers. It did not demolish itself, and thus I knew I had not imagined it. I stumbled over the footpath, catching myself on a statue which resembled a buffalo, reading from the plaque beneath it—the developers had installed this piece—and I recalled how a water trough once sat here, for animals roaming in the street to drink from. I placed a hand on the alloy comprising the buffalo’s shoulder blades and it burned me due to the heat it had accumulated, so unlike the milkman’s buffaloes, and my eyes pricked with tears, and I begged the heavens to turn back time to the court session which ruined my family’s livelihood, to undo the morning I refused to represent the case which stole our land dating to 1887, to erase the evening a suitor visited my home for a marriage proposal and I added salt to the chai on purpose, to rewrite that afternoon so I could agree to wearing a saree, and propel myself across the space-time barrier until the year 2001 proclaims itself on the calendar and I sit on my father’s lap as he rotates the peg to tune his client’s sitar and my mother brings us chhas made from yogurt and mint and water so we can refresh ourselves.
It pained me to stay, to be present at this site of destruction. I sipped the chhas I’d towed with me, but within minutes, I regurgitated it onto the pavement, the pavement which jailed Indian soil beneath foreign money. And as I walked away, the indentations on my palms reminding me of the welts my predecessors received when they rose up against a government that criminalized them, the inhabitants of this apartment complex gaping at my figure as it receded into a rickshaw with a clown’s-nose horn, the children stopping their hopscotch and forming a curtain for my exit, the grandmothers grimacing with recognition and a pity I could not decipher, I knew that the painting of my Punjab—with rivers of tears and sweat winding across valleys, with land like sun-seared skin, with wind which bounds at a pace surpassing a bullet’s, with skies bright and untainted akin to an infant’s eyes, with rain and spirits in tighter formation than the mightiest army—had disintegrated into nothing more than scrap metal, never again the same.