by Shebana Coelho
Reena watched the wind carry leaves over the tracks. She felt she was with them, falling into the slats and disappearing under them into the dark. Meanwhile, Salim was speaking about doubt. He paced up and down the tracks, his thin frame casting shadows on the cement floor of the platform.
“Doubt ought to be celebrated like faith is,” he was saying.
The four of them were at the train station, waiting for the ten a.m. to Ranpur and wondering if it would come at all. You could never be certain – downed trees or bandits often delayed it. The trees were the result of a haphazard logging operation that the district had approved a year ago without really thinking, and the bandits were the bored wives from the army base. They intercepted the train at the first stop at Mangh, entered the men’s compartment, took watches and briefcases and returned them at the last stop at Ranpur. They had never been arrested because nothing was actually stolen and besides, their husbands were all officers.
No one answered Salim – they were all listening for the train.
“Will it or won’t it, that is the question.” The butcher, who everyone called Uncleji, sat on a low stool that he had brought with him from home.
“It won’t. That is the answer,” said Salim’s mother, Mrs. D’souza who liked to gamble. She adjusted her sari around her shoulders and sat up straight.
She and Reena were crowded onto the lone bench on the platform. The four of them had decided to see the Easter Mini Parade this year. It took place right outside the Ranpur church and had five floats that went in a circle, including one with Christ peering out of a papier–mâché cave and another with twelve singing apostles. Doubting Thomas always stood apart from the rest, examining his hands. Every few hours, the floats would stop for a musical number. Thomas would sing of his doubt; the apostles would sing him into belief and for the finale, Christ would stride out of his cave and brandish his hands with the wounds in the center. And Thomas, on his knees, crying, would sing of his faith. Either doves or pigeons were then released – doves when the village had a budget surplus, pigeons during a deficit.
“Why doubt,” said Mrs. D’souza, “when you can believe?” She believed in the power of threes.
“I feel the exact opposite,” said the butcher. “ Why not doubt?” He was thinking of his wife. He had felt, for sometime now, that she was in love with Salim.
“I hope Thomas is the same as last year,” said Reena. “He was such a good singer.” Salim looked at her with sudden intensity and she wished she hadn’t spoken. But she really did hope for the same Thomas again.
They waited till eleven thirty a.m but the train did not come.
As they were walking back the dusty road to the village, Reena looked at the thin-barked trees lining the way. They kept shedding leaves that settled in piles here and there. The wind scattered the piles and the leaves kept falling and the rhythm of the whole enterprise unsettled and comforted her. She was not used to feeling so many feelings. Maybe that’s why she spoke suddenly and said, “Let’s do it dammit.” Everyone stopped and stared at her.
“Celebrate doubt?” Salim had really meant it, but he looked bemused that she might mean it too.
“Yes,” she said, “a parade of the doubtful.”
Even Mrs. D’souza was intrigued. They began making plans then and there.
At the village meeting the following week, they shared their ideas. The meeting was held in the old barracks which once had a straw floor that someone had long ago covered with wide planks of wood. An old photo of Victoria used to hang where the blackboard now stood. The portrait had fallen loudly at the middle of a meeting when they were passing the motion to do away with the afternoon tea bell. And now everyone had tea at different times, usually between 3 pm and 4 pm but not on the dot of 4 like it used to be.
That evening, Salim took the floor. Even at 22, he had the voice of a leader – it carried. There was a hush after he was done. Then everyone talked at once.
“But first,” said Salim, “first, the motion has to pass and then, my friends, we plan but first…”
“Yes, yes.” The convener was Laila, the butcher’s wife. She looked at Salim through her kohl-ringed eyes and banged a hammer on a wooden table that sat there just to be banged on during meetings.
“Yea, yea,” she said. “Is it a go or a no?”
“A go” was the general shout, broken by a sudden clatter of sound. It was the priest, Father Ronaldo who had risen so suddenly and so straight that his chair had topped over and resounded on the wood.
“I must speak,” he said. Due to his accent, no one understood him at first. He refused to say where he came from – the past is past, he would say – and no one knew where to place the accent.
“This is pagan,” he said, and that line everyone understood. “Pagan, I tell you, and I cannot be part of it nor can I condone it.” He stood there trembling, his pink and white skin gleaming in the sun that flooded the small windows of the barracks. And before anyone could ask why, he turned and strode toward the door. The heels of his brown leather shoes made precise thuds on the floor. The door creaked shut behind him. A rusty hinge fell off; the door made a dying song and then it fell too. Everyone turned to see the priest framed in the now empty doorway, a tall thin man with a face made soft by the shock of the lost door. Then he recalled his anger, tightened his mouth, narrowed his eyes, and turned. The hem of his black habit swung to and fro as he disappeared down the path.
Once the priest had deemed the parade pagan, everyone felt free to sin again. Not that they had stopped completely, but the clergy abdicating its presence allowed them to indulge.
“At least, till the parade is done,” said Mrs. D’souza as she sat in her living room and her hand wandered under her sari. Uncleji, the butcher, knocked on the door just then and soon his hand joined hers.
Salim left town for the day. No one knew why. He came back with a black eye. He wouldn’t say how.
That night, the wife of the butcher showed up at Salim’s house with a salve she had made herself. He let her in. She left at midnight. When she got home, she saw an empty bed. She didn’t shower and slept on the butcher’s side of the bed, willing the sheets to absorb the smell of her body and where it had been that night.
In such a carnival of secrets and indulgence, Reena felt lonely. She had no secrets. Everyone knew she loved Salim and he did not love her.
Her only secret, if you could even call it that, was the depth of her love for him. Because on sunny days, when she sat on the shores of the ocean, she loved the waves more; on windy days, when she walked in the forest, she loved the trees more, on cloudy days, when it rained for hours and mist rose from the fields surrounding her house, she loved the rain more.
But if Salim showed up to deliver a package from the sweets shop that his mother owned, then she loved him as everyone thought she did. But only then.
The sweets were handmade, each and every one. His mother made them – halvahs, chocolates, laddoos. The shop had red doors and blue windows. You went in to select sweets and pay for them but you always had to have them delivered, even if you were buying them for yourself.
“No exceptions,” said Mrs. D’souza. “A sweet is sweeter when you receive it from another,” was one of her sayings. Another was, “to wait sweetens the palate.”
Salim had projects that he never finished, sentences he left half spoken. Reena, who had known him since he was two and she was one, filled in the blanks. He was thin and not tall enough to tower but tall enough to make her feel small and protected. He had eyes like pools of water in which rain falls and creates ripples and widens. They were full of movement and shadow. He had never gone to school, but he knew how to read and write.
He had a red scooter that he drove around, delivering sweets. Sometimes, he would go to the city and bring back magazines and postcards and once, he brought back a red scarf with yellow polka dots for Reena’s mother.
Reena’s parents were in their sixties. She lived with them in a blue house near the train station. Blue was her mother’s favorite color. Though no one knew it because she was careful to conceal this under her scarf, every month, she dyed three strands of hair blue. Reena enjoyed planning and organizing, arranging the masalas by name and cross-referencing them by spice and color. The train woke her up at 5 and put her to bed at 10 pm.
The night the priest walked out, Reena imagined her bed in a blue spruce and let a raven carry her to it. She wondered if it was a sin to dream of a man made raven, his gloss, his dark gaze, his voice hoarse for her.
It was a distracted group, humming with pleasure and overindulgence that convened the following week to plan the floats. They met in the barracks to hear suggestions for floats and audition for Thomas.
Reena thought she was the first there until she saw Uncleji and Mrs. D’souza. They sat side by side at the long brown table that was still set up from the last meeting. At first, they looked as they usually did: Mrs. D’souza, thin, brittle, in her white sari, her hair pulled straight into a low bun and Uncleji in a grey kurta pajama, his tall frame slightly hunched, playing with the sandalwood bracelet on his wrist.
They were both looking straight ahead, facing the empty door frame. Someone had ordered a door but for now, there was a curtain in place, a sheer white curtain through which you could see the outline of the approaching body on the other side.
“Hello,” they said in unison and looked at each other, startled, and looked away at once.
“Weather,” Uncleji mumbled under his breath, his face turning red. “Hot.”
Mrs. D’souza giggled and Reena flinched. She had never heard Mrs. D’souza giggle.
And on her wrist – now Reena stared openly- was a bracelet of tiny pink flowers. As she giggled, Mrs. D’souza’s fingers touched the pink flowers delicately, lingering on each.
Reena sat beside Uncelji cautiously.
Salim entered as he always did, in a hurry and talking, “There’s already a line,” he said, and holding up the curtain said, “Come in. Come in.”
And the parade of hopefuls for the parade of the doubtful began.
Rabindranath won the role of Thomas easily. He said he was a man of such faith that doubt was a real stretch and now and then you needed to stretch. He wanted Thomas to have a mustache. “I imagine him twirling his pinkie finger on the tip of it,” he said.
He had a tall lean frame and a slight hunch that made him look as if he was stooping. In fact, the hunch had developed from years of stooping. He had listened to every single word his mother said except for ‘stand straight.’ It had been his rebellion and though he loved her, it thrilled him (secretly, of course-he would never say this out loud) that his rebellion had found such concrete shape. To look at him was to see his hunch, his rebellion manifest.
He said the spirit of the poet sometimes overcame him.
“Tagore takes my words,” he said. If left to his own devices, he would stay silent. But his wife insisted he find words and the only way he found words was by commissioning plays for himself, for all occasions – on the occasion of an angry wife, on the occasion of an angry mother, on the occasion of a sudden death.
“I will make you believe doubt,” he said, imaging the mustache he would grow in two weeks: a thick luxurious curl of black. In fact, it came in thin and white but he colored it brown and said that on second thought, less hair was better than more.
They heard suggestions for floats in groups of four. “That way,” said Salim, “there are other opinions besides ours who weigh in.”
“But everyone of those four will vote for themselves.” Uncleji said. “Everyone will try to make the others ideas less.”
“No, no,” said one of two nuns from the convent. They were the first in line.
“If I hear a good idea that’s not mine, I’ll speak up. I promise you.” The idea went down the line from the other nun to people waiting and everyone promised to speak up for a good idea, whether it was theirs or not.
Before they started, they all agreed on some overall points: Thomas would be the mascot, of course, leading the way. The rest of the parade would have floats about things that you doubt. Then they began hearing suggestions.
By mid-afternoon, their list of floats for the parade of the doubtful included:
Yeti, the Snowman from the Himalayas.
Atlas, carrying a round earth.
“Because there are still doubts,” said Mrs. D’souza, and everyone gathered there nodded, “faint but persistent doubts.” Everyone nodded again.
Santa, the Easter Bunny, Bogeyman, two reindeer, and a leprechaun
“All on one float?” asked Reena. “Really?”
“Yes,” said Salim. “It’s not who they represent. It’s the fact of them we doubt.”
Rodin’s The Thinker. The florist Mr. Soni suggested this float and said he would make the statute from tissue paper to indicate our doubts in the power of thought. “Using roses,” he added, “I’ll decorate, ‘I doubt therefore I am’ on the float.”
The Doubting Daisies, a dance troupe from the convent school.
“We are all ages 16 and under,” said the leader shyly. She was a very well developed girl of sixteen and kept glancing at Salim.
“Skirts to the knees,” said Mrs. D’souza sharply and the girl at once switched to her convent look, eyes down.
“Yes, Aunty,” she said meekly, meaning it.
The last suggestion for the float came from the Spaniard Elena who was dressed in what seemed like death with a long black cowl.
“How can you doubt death exists?” said Mrs. D’Souza.
“…when there’s no doubt about it,” said Salim
“Oh no,” Elena said. “It’s not death I doubt. What I doubt is that we disappear into death…”
“Why are you dressed like the Grim Reaper then,” said Uncleji, puzzled.
“Nothing grim at all,” said Elena, and dropped the cowl.
Underneath she wore a skin tight black leotard through which the outline of her breasts showed, tight leggings and around her waist, a red scarf that extended to her knees, tied at the side of her hips in a knot. The scarf had long gold fringes that almost touched the floor. On her feet, she wore black shoes with low heels.
“I propose a dance of not-disappearing,” she said and before anyone could say anything, she clapped her hands together, stamped her feet, and began to move. Her fair skin gleamed in the afternoon sun that sliced the room into dark and shade. She sang as she danced, her voice was all rasp, and the dance swayed into the hips and out of them and the rhythm grew and grew. Reena wanted to look away but couldn’t. Elena bent her head back, her hips back, her hands moved up, threading the air, and then suddenly, abruptly, she stopped. She put the cowl back on.
A shiver went through Mrs. D’souza. Salim looked away from his mother. Uncleji studied the tips of his brown sandals with interest not lifting his head till the shiver passed into the wooden floor.
Reena shifted in the chair. The silence grew. “Thank you,” she said to Elena and her voice sounded unnatural. At her voice, all the others looked at her and roused themselves to thanks. Elena was accepted. She left and the meeting dispersed.
After everyone left, Reena stayed in the empty barracks. She couldn’t face the rest of the day. When she had broken the silence and everyone had looked up at her, Salim’s gaze had lingered one second longer than necessary. It was only one extra second but it was enough to keep her in the barracks for hours. At twilight, she walked swiftly to her house, nodded to her parents, and went up to her room. There, she looked at the stars, even though it was a cloudy night and not a single star could be seen.
The parade began at 5 pm sharp. Everyone lined the street of the village along the parade route. All the shops closed, even the sweet shop, which surprised everyone. Mrs. D’souza had never closed the shop since it opened ten years ago.
The parade began under the banyan tree of the main square, went up one street, which ended at the church, crossed to another street, returned to the church and back to the main square.
Rabindranath as Thomas led the way. He had mastered emoting doubt, looking up at his hands, down to his feet. His mustache was a thin brown line but he had found peace with it. His float had a small table with twelve stools. A thirteenth stool apart from the rest. That’s where he sat as Thomas. On one of the twelve stools sat Jesus, played by a man named Thomas who had played Doubting Thomas in the Ranpur fair. Whether to include him or not had been cause for a debate. Salim thought Christ was unnecessary and Uncleji and Mrs. D’Souza were adamant that he was.
“But everyone knows Thomas and his doubts,” Salim said.
“Exactly,” his mother spoke calmly. She had become very patient since she started sinning.
“Everyone knows what Thomas doubts is Christ,” said Uncleji.
“And so,” Mrs. D’Souza continued, “you have to have the object of his doubt.”
“But the priest…,” Salim began.
“This will sanctify it,” said Uncleji triumphantly and that was that.
Reena tried not to look pleased and failed. Salim noticed
“You’re happy,” he said accusingly.
“Yes, I am,” she said. It felt like a confession because it was.
As Thomas sang a Christ song, Reena watched. She had forgotten the song’s name but it had resurrection and light in it, and his voice was as beautiful as she had remembered. It tickled the soles of her feet. She was so intent on the song and loving it that she walked all the way with the float to the church. Only when it stopped did she realize that Thomas from Ranpur was also staring at her.
The rest of the parade passed in a daze. She only registered the decibel of sounds rising and rising, a champagne bottle popping, two, three, the yeti, Mr. Singh doing a jig on the float and falling off, Uncleji pulling Mrs. D’souza away, one hand on her hip, in full sight of everyone while Elena danced her dance of non-disappearing. Later Laila, the butcher’s wife, disappeared with Rabindranath so only Christ was left singing about light.
Reena noticed Salim at the periphery but she didn’t turn because in front of her was Thomas of Ranpur singing to her, and he was looking at her full, not glancing, but full on, and the black of his hair gleamed.
When the float returned again to the main square and everyone else was dispersing, she took Thomas’ hand and then she led him to her house, past her parents – they slept at tea time, parade or no parade – and up to her room, to the bed where she had dreamt of the raven. There, she let him kiss her.
The next day, Rabindranath confessed he had spiked the apple juice that the schoolchildren had given out for free to the whole village.
“With gin” he said to whomever he met, and because he was ashamed, he even told them how many bottles and how much it cost.
“That accounts for it,” said Uncleji, as he walked shamefaced to greet his wife who stood, equally shamefaced, at the front door of their house. They went in, heads bent together.
Across the main square, Mrs. D’souza briskly opened the shutters of her sweet shop. She was humming. Uncleji had come and gone and now here, she uncovered the small heap of yellow laddos, here, she bent her head to smell them, here, she gazed at cashew triangles, the chocolate éclairs, here was true love making itself known to her.
Reena sat at her window, clear-eyed. She had sent Thomas packing after the first kiss.
“Really,” he had said.
“Really,” she said. “I just needed one touch of your lips to know.”
“To know what?”
“That I don’t want another touch. Sorry,” she added.
In his response he grew increasingly un-Christ-like, loud enough to waken her sleeping parents who walked bleary-eyed into the room and stopped at the sight of Christ cursing at their daughter
Reena couldn’t hear over her desire. It made her smile, all the way through escorting him out the door.
Then she began to weep into the hollow places she had guarded for so long.
She became the raven, flew into the tree beside the house, and burrowed into leaves, making such a racket that that her parents who had fallen off to sleep, woke again. Her father cursed the caterwauling of sparrows, “damn common birds,” but her mother touching the hidden blue in her hair, said, “Ravens,” at once. Then sleep claimed her and she let it. Her daughter wept the night into day.
When Salim came to her door that evening, Reena received him without a single blush. Wordless, they joined hands and walked to find the priest.
But the rectory was empty. The old gardener cutting hedges said the priest wasn’t there.
Inside, the maid was cleaning the floors.
“He packed up yesterday,” she said. “I’m only cleaning because it’s paid for. But look at this place. He left it cleaner.”
They looked around the blue tiled room with its wicker furniture.
“He left at 5pm sharp,” she said. “I took him to the train myself. I saw him with my own eyes leave this place. No doubt about it.”
As they left, a wind came with them to the door. The maid rushed to shut the windows. The wind buffeted the branches of the trees in the garden. The gardener ran for his hat.
“I believe…” Reena said.
“Yes?” Salim looked at her tenderly.
“I believe,” Reena paused, “that the rains will come early this season.”
“I believe that too,” said Salim.
They walked home on the dusty path, under darkening skies, leaves falling in pools at their