Joy ignores the tension in the seams of his pants. Peace had darned them so carefully, with near invisible stitches, as if she had been sewing a patch of her own skin. She had even run a strengthening line along the seams with her sewing machine. He knows they’ll hold. No matter what.
Peace’s face seems to float by in the breeze as he climbs, and Joy shuts his eyes for a second to hold the image.
Their names were given to them by the padre who had baptised them. Perhaps the good Father had been struck by the couple’s aura of endless hope. Perhaps he’d seen the rhythmic possibilities of their native names turned into English in a moment of drollery. And so, Joydev Chaki had become Joy Dave Chaki. Priyoshi Chaki had turned into Peace Priscilla Chaki. And, their son Mihir became Merry Henry Chaki. But their daughter, born after the conversion, was christened Delight Daisy Chaki straightaway. Two brand new English names, not transformed ones like theirs. The family calls her Deelightee, almost singing it to the dimpled-with-happiness little girl.
The framed Church certificate looks like a picture. The picture of a happy family. And why not? Happiness is all they care about, regardless of the Gods they entrust their care to. Joy still harbours some guilt though. He has memories of his mother placing a lamp-flame warmed hand on his head, a blessing carried over from their household deity after her evening prayers. It is there within him, as vivid and comforting as the pot of hot rice she used to set before him every day, insisting he that eat his fill, before she herself did.
Joy doesn’t consciously think about the switch. But the thought makes its presence felt somehow. Niggling him like the last pinworm of his childhood, too stubborn to succumb to the bitter medicine concocted by the local herbalist, and tenaciously clinging on to the ends of his innards, making him squirm every now and then.
Peace has little patience with sentimental things, but she understands Joy’s unspoken dilemma. She would never throw the deity away. Never slam the door on a talisman her husband relies on, however blasphemous. The good fathers of their Church, and their fellow Christians didn’t need to know, that’s all.
Joy grasps the brush with his teeth. He flings a sinewy arm upwards to catch the horizontal bar of the rope-and-bamboo ladder, lifting his leg up at the same time, foot curving around the bar in a precarious hold. The contraption sways every time he moves, and he has to steady himself repeatedly. He could be a dressed up circus monkey for all they – the overseers of the construction company he works for – cared. Joy frowns to concentrate. He can’t afford not to. Not with the hard ground below. Not with the merciless sky shimmering above him. Miniscule dark spots appear before his eyes the instant he looks away. Joy stares at the structure in front. Its solidity reassures him. He swings himself up but without the easy grace of an orang-utan, and reaches the portion of the building he and his colleagues are to work on today.
It’s a risky job, with no compensation or insurance. He’s not entitled to severance pay, because he is a contractual labourer. He doesn’t even belong to any workers’ union. He is in God’s hands. A specific, round-bellied deity, in fact, carved from stone. A God with a benign smile beneath curly a beard. And he sits on Peace’s alcove, with no visible signs of worship like vermillion and incense ash upon his person. He is the one Joy avoids eye contact with, pretending to adjust his trousers or do a button on his shirt, hoping his neglected protector doesn’t think he is being deliberately impertinent.
Now Joy keeps his eyes determinedly up, even when he feels blinded by the hot sun. He daren’t close them against the heat. What if he sees the ground spinning up? His canvas shoes with the worn-to-a-wafer thin rubber soles squeak and slide against the smooth bamboo bar. He is used to getting teased for the shoes; the others shimmy up in their bare feet, but Joy wears socks and shoes, and a colourful handkerchief tied around his neck too. He is an ardent fan of Rajnikant, the action-hero who rose from humble beginnings. He often hums songs from the mega star’s movies.
A breeze comes along and plays a game of tug with the coir rope. Joy hangs on. He’s been doing the same unchanging job for several years now. His routine never falters. The hours never vary. The buildings change with every new assignment, but in the end, they all look the same.
Joy is known for his neatness, the quality of his work. He has the aura of an educated man about him, even though he couldn’t finish school. His colleagues find him friendly but reserved. They sense a certain hunger in him. They find him fastidious in his attire, in spite of the paint stains. And even though they have never met Peace face-to-face, they know all about her talent for sewing. Some of them have also seen Joy on his way to Church on Sundays, nattily dressed, flanked by a pair of small children in cleverly put together patchwork clothes, and a woman, who they assume must be Peace.
The tin-roofed single-room shack, with a shaded courtyard the size of a bedspread for a kitchen and a community bathroom a few metres beyond, is both home and workshop. Here Peace sweeps up the bits of cloth and fluff into separate piles. She will use the fluff as stuffing for the cloth toys she makes, a side business of hers. The cloth bits will go into a big bag, for the endless patchwork things in her home. She sews small pieces of cloth together into a large workable piece, which she then cuts into shape and stitches again. Leftovers are precious, because her customers usually need only their shirt collars turned and pants let out. Some customers remember to ask for the leftover cloth, and she hands the pieces over without a word. They’re all in the same boat after all. Some let her have them, departing with a knowing smirk. Peace ignores them, bending down grim-faced to face her machine, and carries on.
Some openly snigger when they see the girl and boy walking hand in hand in their motley clothes. “Look at our fashion models!” They call. “Look. Look! High fashion!”
Peace holds her head high. Joy’s clothes have never had to submit themselves to the parsimony of her shears and thread, except for the near invisible darned parts, the tactfully renewed collar. He is better looking and better dressed than the other men. Her trusty second-hand Singer, donated to her by the Church, has never disrespected her man.
Peace dreams of a house of their own, built from scratch by Joy. She visualises him leaning against the roof, hammering away or wielding a brush. Merry and Deelightee running about, making a game of it, handing him tools, a mug of tea. She sees herself squatting before a portable coal stove, stirring chicken curry, chiefly made up of the butcher’s discards, sold for a pittance to customers like her and dog owners, but with three good pieces thrown in, bought with money carefully extracted from her own nest egg. A man has to eat, and so do his children.
Peace thinks of her friends who work in high-rise apartments in the city. They return home with plastic bags of leftover food. The delicate stomachs of the rich cannot digest what’s been sitting in the refrigerator for more than a week. Merry and Deelightee have told her about the meals their friends get to eat every now and then. But Joy would never let her do a maid’s job. And, Peace’s heart swells with pride. Her Joy is different. He doesn’t come home swaying and cursing after a binge at the toddy shop. He doesn’t beat her. Doesn’t gamble. He never visits bad women. Peace purses her lips. She knows what they are called, but will not sully her house by naming them.
She knows her friends envy her. So she’s been careful not to tell them about their escape in the dead of night from one identity into another. From the dirt tracks of their village in Midnapur to the outskirts of bustling Kolkata, their journey had been long and arduous after the quick and quiet ceremony. How Joy, originally a farming lad, had doggedly taught himself new tricks and skills. And how Peace had focussed on honing her natural talent for sewing as soon as she had got her precious machine.
Peace studies the two metre-long pieces she had picked up from a seconds sale at a hosiery and yardage store. They are almost identical in colour and texture. A string of sweat-beads line her upper lip. A pinch of creativity is all she needs to turn them into a decent shirt for Joy. She takes a nub of marking wax, and taps it on the small work table as she ponders about the design.
A sudden hullaballoo interrupts her reverie. What she sees outside her door pulls the breath out of her lungs, leaving her gasping. It’s Nuruddin, Joy’s friend, bloodied and dishevelled, surrounded by what appears to be their entire locality. An accident at the site, something about rotten coir ropes, with one man already dead, one critical, two, like Nuruhddin, not so critical, and one hanging on for dear life. The information pours out piecemeal, in a jumble of incoherent words. She steadies herself to take in the worst, and then collapses on her doorstep.
Minutes later, Peace is racing towards the building. She touches the cross swinging from a loop of black twine around her neck, and simultaneously squeezes the stone idol in her closed fist; she’d remembered to pluck it from the alcove when she hastily locked the house and ran out. Thankfully the children are still at school. Anger wells up towards the God in her fist. She is certain he is taking revenge because they switched loyalties, at least publicly.
Why are their Gods so unreasonable? In this country, changing track is just another means of surviving. Since he’s a God, can’t he be more understanding? More forgiving?! What kind of a God is he? She hopes the quieter one, the one that dangles perennially from a cross, her self-installed patron of her tailoring business, will not let her down. She prays to him, and at the same time, quite unconsciously, brings up her idol gripped fist to her breast. Her eyes dart around for a fire engine. There is none in sight. Her feet fly over the hot dusty road. By the time she reaches the site, her rib muscles are stiff with pain and she can barely breathe. She doesn’t speak to anyone as she frantically searches for her Joy. Finally, she spies a familiar shape on the coir ropes, dangling in the air.
Joy looks strange, like a puppet whose puppeteer, bored of his trade, has absconded. The sight of him wrings out a hysterical laugh from Peace’s throat. He is approximately forty feet above ground, enough to get himself killed should he lose grip. Some of Joy’s colleagues and friends are standing on a balcony close by. They are shouting encouraging words, asking him to try and use his body like a pendulum to swing towards them. The building is incomplete, and some parts of it don’t even have walls. The balcony doesn’t have railings yet, so the men are holding on to a pillar and extending their arms towards Joy.
To Peace it seems like the earth’s gravity has suddenly increased ten-fold, and time has flattened itself into a thin sheet. She feels certain that they will soon, all of them together, be crushed into nothingness. She wills herself to fight against the sensation. Like a swimmer in a choppy sea desperately surfacing for air, she tries to lift herself from the ground, flinging her arms skywards with a force she never knew she had. The deity in her hand flies out with impatient velocity.
The small ping pong ball-like thing, weighty for its size, arcs through the air higher and higher until it grazes Joy’s cheek, startling him. Joy releases the rope as he tries, on reflex, to catch the lobbed missile. A second too late he realises his mistake, loses his hold and plunges below. Horror robs Peace of voice and movement. But there is a crowd of men ahead of her, closer to the building, immediately below him. Their unified “aaahaaaahaaiii” waxes like the ululation of devotees as they move with the fluidity of a boneless beast towards her falling Joy.
Through the surging heads and crowd of bodies Peace catches glimpses of a patchwork sheet held up by many hands, making up a large hammock of many colours. The sheet or bedspread or whatever it is, seems luminously familiar. But she cannot remember stitching it. Questions hop about in her mind. Did someone copy her idea, then? And does that mean that there is another tailor in their locality? Was that why her business had been dwindling lately? Or was it really one of her own bedspreads? A piece that she may have sold to one of her neighbours during a particularly tight month? But who had brought it here? Was it still strong enough?
A part of her mind is amazed that she can stand there and think of so many little things. Another part is numb, not daring to articulate the fear thrashing about her stomach like a snake that got its head caught in a rattrap. Another ululation resonates, making the stone-hard panic in Peace’s breast unbearable. She gazes stupidly at the patchwork spread. The seconds stretch treacherously before her.
And then suddenly, in authentic Rajnikant style, there is her Joy, rolling on the cloth amidst the shouts and hurrahs of his mates, and the distant scream of the now unnecessary fire engine. Peace pushes her way through the hullaballoo of sweaty excited people. She goes up to her Joy and retrieves him. And, he, trying hard to be normal, ends up smiling nervously at everyone around, the fingers of his right hand still fused around the idol. Involuntary shivers run through his back every now and then. He stands on shaky legs, barely aware of Peace who is holding him.
Enough excitement for the day, Peace decides. She takes him straight home and shuts the door on her neighbours. She wants them both to be calm before Merry and Deelightee return.
Later in the day, after everybody has been scrubbed clean, and after they’ve eaten their afternoon meal, they dress up in their Sunday best and slip away to their Church. Peace and Joy, hands linked, holding a child each on either side, forming a little chain, like the linked daddy-mummy-brother-sister kite-paper family Merry had cut out for Delightee last Sunday. Peace and Joy walk together, their steps eager with renewed hope. Their children hopping on either side, excited about this sudden outing.
The cool and quiet interiors of the tall stone building are soothing and calming. They kneel down together before Mother Mary’s statue holding the infant Jesus in the crook of her arm, her other hand raised in a benediction, eyes as serene as lotus buds. After that they kneel before the crucifix above the pulpit where they receive the Holy Communion every Sunday. And then, they make the children slip coins of small denominations into the slit on top of the donation box, a fistful each. Merry and Delightee take their time to insert the coins, listening for the clink of falling metal with shining eyes.
When they come out, they are greeted by a blushing young evening. Cool air from a faraway ocean drifts into their city. The scent of newly blossoming night flowers spreads quiet cheer around them. The atmosphere feels almost festive, and they laugh together like any other family on a vacation would. Merry and Deelightee have an ice cream cone each. Their faces aglow at this unprecedented treat. Sensing the mood they offer licks and bites to Peace and Joy, and the parents taste the cool creamy luxury carefully, almost kissing the frozen confectionery, as if they were Jesus’s feet.
Still later, when evening has succumbed to night, Joy and Peace stand before the idol in the alcove. Joy bends his head ever so slightly, his eyes closing for a second, in an imperceptible gesture of gratitude.
When the night has lengthened into a stiller creature, long after the children have fallen asleep, Peace and Joy ease their bodies away from each other, with the quietness of long practice. The languor that comes after deep physical pleasure melts and merges slowly into tender conversation, both verbal and tactile.
Peace places the two swatches of cloth on Joy, one on each shoulder. She checks the texture of the fabric against his skin, the drape of it on his torso. He sniffs the crisp new-cloth smell, and slides his fingers across the smooth cloth. They giggle softly. Then they cry a little, and wipe away each other’s tears with the cloth pieces. They pull each other close again, breathing through the fabric, stalling each other’s involuntary shiver with their arms as their nerve cells relive the cold chasm that had, without warning, opened up in the midst of their lives.
Sleep has, until now, eluded Peace and Joy. The whites of their eyes beam out towards each other in the smoky darkness. An unspoken determination pulsates between them. A new fierceness burns in their hearts, fanning their mutual will to survive, their need to cut through the walls before them, and to hold their dreams in their own hands. Right now though, they are too exhausted to dwell upon any fresh possibilities and visualise the desires raging within their hearts. The gentle, trustful breathing of their children on the thin mattress next to their own, creates a soothing, almost lulling rhythm. So sleep, at long last, does come to them, sauntering slowly into their personal space, catlike in its stealth. This time though, they are ready, even eager to welcome their tardy visitor. And when they close their eyes, it is with the gratitude of boon seekers.
Patchwork has been taken with permission from Shikhandin’s book “Impetuous Women” published by Penguin-RHI
Shikhandin is the nom de plume of an Indian writer who writes for adults and children. Her published books, as Shikhandin, include “Immoderate Men” (Speaking Tiger), and “Vibhuti Cat” (Duckbill-Penguin-RHI). Contributor to Magic Stories for Eight Year Olds by Penguin RHI, and Flipped: An Anthology of School and Sports Stories by Harper Collins. She has been honoured with many national and international awards.