Palo Alto Weekly 26th Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Adult

About Apala G. Egan

The story is based on my memories and experiences in India, where I spent my childhood and youth. Bengal, where I am from, was one of the first regions to fall sway to European powers, both French and English; if the English gained ascendancy in the subcontinent, the French retained their strongholds. The story is set during the twilight of that era.

The story is based on my own childhood recollection of a young woman who wore no make-up or jewelry and seemed to shroud herself in white saris edged with the thinnest of borders; stark white is the color of mourning in India. The image stays in my mind, though as a youngster I scarcely gave it a thought. With the passage of years, thoughts crowd into my brain; could she have been a widow? I grew up in an extended family in a house with two kitchens; meat was cooked as far away as possible from the vegetarian kitchen. My grandmother and my elderly aunt who lived with us observed the dietary strictures of widowhood.

I have been working on translating some of the writings by an award-winning woman writer of Bengal, Jyotirmoyee Devi. She was among the earliest women writers of that region and much of her work focuses on the experiences of women, be they wives, mothers or concubines. In the process of translating, I believe I got bitten by the writing bug. I have taken a number of writing courses over the last few years as time permitted. I took the Creative Writing sequence at Foothill College, and then went on to take specific on-line courses through Berkeley and UCLA and selected in-class courses at Stanford. I also attended the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference three years ago. My day job is that of a substitute teacher, but the rest of the time is for exploring the world of writing and literature.

This is the first contest that I have ever entered, and I am both honored and delighted that my piece was selected. In addition to my translations, I am also working on short stories and a novel.

BASTILLE DAY
by Apala G. Egan

“Here are some more saris,” Meera’s sister-in-law said as she laid out a pile of crisp, white saris on the chair. “You might want to put them over there.” She nodded towards the armoire as she draped her canary yellow sari with its woven black border over her left shoulder with an easy swing of her arm, the sari straining over her swelling belly.

“But there’s no room,” Meera said. She faced her visitor, noting the 22 karat gold hoops on her ears and her finely wrought gold necklace glinting in the morning sunlight of a Calcutta spring filtering in through the window slats. “The wardrobe is full.”

“But surely…,” the relative paused. A look of apprehension mingled with pity flitted across her face. “Surely, you know you can never wear those saris again,” she said glancing towards the wardrobe.

Meera’s voice was devoid of inflection. “I know.”

Yes, she knew that she had to eschew all the finery that lay locked in her armoire. Married at twenty, widowed at barely twenty-five, she was forced to wear widow’s weeds for the rest of her life; as for her gold jewelry, an intrinsic part of an Indian bride’s trousseau, they were to remain forever unworn. Moreover, she had to eschew all meat and fish and conform to a diet that was a strict vegan. Averting her face, the older woman folded some white high-necked blouses with sleeves running down to the elbows. “These blouses will go with your new saris,” she said and left the room.

On the dressing table lay a large, mottled brown cowrie shell. Meera’s hands trembled as she picked it up. Her throat constricted and her body shook. She pressed the shell to her wet cheek, her hands still shaking. Her ribcage heaved with muffled, stricken sobs, and her hands would not stop trembling. “You stay here, I will be back soon.” With those words her husband had gently set her down on the beach, stripped down to his bathing trunks and within moments, began cleaving his way in the sea with powerful strokes.

She had taken off her sandals her bare feet sinking into the warm sand, she sniffed the salty tang in the air and as her sari fluttered in the strong breeze she inched slowly towards the water. She lifted her sari up to her ankles, and ventured in. Oh, the tickling, sensuous feel of the wet, squelchy sand on her bare soles! The turquoise waves lapped at her bare feet, edged with crimson ‘alta’ paint still visible from her wedding day. A powerful wave approached, and she was on her hands and knees, choking on water and desperately clawing at the sodden sand. The lifeguards came running, but her new husband was there first, his strong brown arms guiding her, his head touching hers. Her sari clung to her skin as she looked down at the tiny droplets of water on the hairs of her husband’s glistening arm holding her just below her bosom. She gave a slight shiver and clasped his hand.The lunch gong broke her reverie and she rose with leaden feet to attend to her household duties.

A brimming bowl of curried fish swimming in rich gravy laced with onions and chunks of tomatoes sat on the dining table; the sweet aroma of fried onions filled the air and assailed her nostrils. The cook placed serving plates on the table as the children scampered in. She stood back a little, and gave the fish a fleeting glance; it had been one of her favorite dishes. She felt a pricking sensation at the sides of her tongue; inadvertently she bit the inside of her right cheek, and blood and saliva mingled to form a brackish mixture in her mouth. Her eyes glistened at the forbidden food. She removed her gaze from the laden table, and clenched her left hand beneath the folds of her white sari; tiny, pink half-circles appeared on her palms.

“Eat your vegetables before the fish…no, don’t push the food to the edge of your plate, you mustn’t waste food you know…” The banalities rolled mechanically of her lips as she circled the dining room admonishing the children. She had no children of her own. Her husband had preferred to wait.

Returning to her room after lunch, she began re-organizing her wardrobe. Her saris lay strewn on top of the dusty rose quilt on the double bed, the fine stitches patterned in ever-widening circles.

Groomed like all girls for marriage she was a skilled needlewoman.

The littlest girl of the house slipped into the room. “Ooh, what lovely saris!” She pulled out one end of a pink sari edged with gold, and draping it around her head looked ecstatically into the mirror. “I am a bride!” After finishing her game, the three-year-old sidled up to her beloved aunt, and pointed to the pile of richly hued silks and cottons. “When are you going to wear those again?”

“I can never wear them again.”

“But, why not? Only old women wear white saris, like Grandma, who is so old and wrinkled. Your skin is so smooth.” Running her tiny hands over a crimson sari, she raised puzzled eyes. “Do you have to wear white forever?”

“Yes.”

That night Meera slept fitfully. The spasms came in sharp, irregular bursts; the cramping in her loins grew more searing.

“Push! It will not be too long now.” The starched white headdress of the nurse appeared as brittle as thin wax.

Her thighs felt wet, very wet. She strained her ears to hear the baby’s cry, but there was none. Icy droplets pimpled her forehead and trickled down her temples into her ears. She heard herself give a panic-stricken croak and tried to rise. The well-lit hospital room, its walls an antiseptic green, receded. In the sudden darkness, she could discern the familiar shapes of the bolster and the dressing table; it was that time of the month again.

A week later, squeals, laughter and the pounding of feet on the verandah woke her from her afternoon nap. During a lull in the game she heard a loud whisper.

“Mum and Dad are moving into that room. They say it’s big enough for them and the crib too.”

“But where will she go?” came a plaintive cry from the youngest girl.

The following day her mother-in-law, her white sari draped around her shoulders, her silver hair pulled back into a neat bun, entered her room; her gait was ponderous. “It will be better if you moved upstairs. You can have the room right next to mine. The servants can clear out the bags of lentils.” She sat down on the chair and it creaked. “Besides, our widows’ vegetarian kitchen is on the top floor too, and you will not have to climb stairs quite so often.” The young woman, her large eyes dark with dismay, stared at her mother-in-law. There was a pause, a long pause. “Yes, mother.”

Meera went to visit her family in Chandernagore a month later. The town was a few hours away from Calcutta and as she alighted from the train she saw with pleasure that the old French colonial town that had defied the British domination of the subcontinent was still unchanged, although now it was part of newly independent India. When she arrived home, her mother clasped her in a voluminous embrace.

Meera disengaged herself with difficulty. “I’ve come home for good.”

Her mother was aghast. “What will people say? Who will support you? Your wedding portion was all spent when we arranged your marriage. You can never marry again, now that you are a widow; your brother’s salary is just about enough to take care of his family and me.”

“I’m not going back. They’re moving me into the storage room.”

“Aren’t they clearing it out?” The older woman’s face was alive with concern.

“That’s not the point.”

After an exhaustive search, Meera found a job as a needlework teacher at the school for girls run by an order of French nuns from Cluny. The students, unused to having such young teachers in their midst, began calling her Miss Ghose instead of Mrs. Ghose. Meera did not bother to correct them. She settled into a pleasant routine of showing them the art of embroidery and dress-making.

The summer’s heat gave way to the cool sprinkling of the monsoons; the nuns were all a-flutter with the annual preparations for Bastille Day to which the French diplomats from Calcutta had been invited.

After the school’s early dismissal, Meera went up the curving staircase and entered the large room on the second floor. Streamers, in red, white and blue hung in loops by the windows, and silk ribbons in the French tricolor were draped over the picture frames that lined the walls, the pictures themselves being reproductions of Degas ballerinas and pastoral scenes in Burgundy. Meera saw that the long stem of the fan that dropped from the ceiling was wound tightly in the multi-colored streamers and on the tables were vases of red and white roses mixed with the indigenous blue aparajita flowers. The windows were wide open, the green shutters flush against the pale yellow walls; outside the sky was streaked with grey and silver clouds while warm, moist air eddied into the room.

Meera went and stood by the teachers, almost the entire teaching staff was comprised of French nuns or women of European ancestry, she was the only sari-clad woman in the room. A thrill of excitement went round the room at the sound of tires on gravel; the women gathered by the window and saw the Mother Superior greeting the diplomats. When the nun and visitors came up the stairs a short while later, she introduced the guests to her assembled staff. The French Consul General, a middle-aged man, was effusive in his compliments and his youthful aide proved equally charming.

The conversation between the nuns and diplomats flowed freely in French; the subdued murmur caressed Meera’s earlobes and throat, till sensuous drops of the language trickled in through her ears and she could almost taste the words and roll them warm on her tongue.

“Please, let us all be seated,” the Mother Superior said in English, and in broken Bengali, gave the order for food to be served.

The uniformed servants came in, one carrying a tray of steaming café-au-lait, another arrived balancing an array of pink and white petit fours and glazed apple tartlets, and a third followed with a platter laden with quiche bites, brioches and assorted puff pastries. The servants placed the coffee cups on the little tables by each chair, and wandered around the room serving each guest with painstaking care.

Meera took a bite of her spinach and chive filled brioche and glanced sideways at the young Frenchman sitting on the next chair.

“So, how long have you been teaching Miss Ghose?” asked the young man. His English was perfect, though he spoke with a slight softening of his consonants.

“I just joined a few weeks ago,” Meera said.

“And do the students treat you well?”

Meera laughed. “Of course.”

The Mother Superior, sitting to the right of him addressed him in French. He excused himself from Meera and turned his head to reply. The young woman looked at the back of his neck, admiring the crisp, brown curls at the nape, and when he turned towards her once again, she found herself gazing into his eyes and seeing the infinite grey of the monsoon skies. Her throat and cheeks felt hot and she sensed her color rising.

“How do you like Calcutta?” Meera said.

“I have been there for the last two years. It is too crowded for my liking, but Chandernagore here, is charming. The summers however, are what would you say, broiling.” He laughed, displaying even, white,

teeth. “I may have to leave on another posting, perhaps in as soon as a couple of months. But it will still be in the East.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Most probably Saigon, or maybe Singapore, who knows.”

The uniformed servant hovered near, proffering a tray laden with savories.

The young diplomat lifted the pair of tongs from the tray and selected a piece of paté chaud.

“May I have the pleasure…?” He asked, the tongs still in the air.

Meera’s breathing quickened. “Oh no, not …”

“You don’t care for paté chaud?”

She gazed at the cylindrical pieces of golden puff- pastry encasing a delicately spiced filling of sausage; the aroma of the forcemeat wafted towards her nose, it smelled fresh and delicious. She had always loved these delicacies, and as a child, the occasional box from the sole French bakery in town had thrilled her; she and her brother had inevitably fought over them. But now, the strictures of widowhood forbade her from ever consuming meat. A stab of resentment swept over her.

“It’s not that, but…,” Meera said.

The young man placed the piece on her plate and plied her with more of the edibles. “The pastries are delicious. Almost as good as I would get in a café in Paris.”

She looked down at the meat-filled pastry on her plate and tiny jets sprang from the edges of her tongue till her mouth filled with liquid. She swallowed hard and fidgeted with the pleats of her white sari edged with the thinnest of blue borders, her fingers trembling. A wave of anger washed over her.

How dare societal mores shroud her in widow’s garb for life, and deny her the delights of food that was part of her childhood? She took a covert bite. It was more delicious than she had ever remembered.Through the corner of her eye she saw a look of sheer surprise, then reproof, appear on the servant’s face; the look vanished almost as soon as it appeared.

The party broke up soon afterwards and the guests bade their adieus.

Over the next few weeks, the weather broke and the rains came down in earnest. In the evenings when the downpour had abated somewhat, Meera would walk along the embankment by the river past Dupleix’s restored two-hundred-year-old mansion. She walked in an easy stride and the muddy water of the silted river frothing at the edges reminded her of café au lait, but sometimes at night she experienced disturbing dreams; that of swirling blue waters, her sari clinging to her skin, and an arm that encircled her just beneath her breasts, and when she turned, she saw eyes that were a misty grey.

 


Judge's comment

"Bastille Day" is an elegant, finely-wrought story of a young Indian widow battling her sensual impulses and the constraints of her culture to forge a new life consisting of small satisfactions and larger guilts.