Krishna is quite unsettled when he bumps into a woman's corpse during his morning bath in Kolkata's Hooghly River, yet declines to do anything about it--after all, why should he take responsibility for a stranger? But when the dead start coming back to life en masse, he rethinks his position and the debate around how to treat these newly risen corpses gets a lot more complicated. In this story from Indrapramit Das, a journalist strives to understand Krishna's actions and what they say about the rest of society and how we treat our dead.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Indrapramit Das, Keren Katz
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Indrapramit Das
All rights reserved.
At first, Krishna thought the corpse was Ma Durga herself. A face beneath sun-speckled ripples — to his eyes a drowned idol, paint flaking away and clay flesh dissolving. But it was nothing so sacred as a discarded goddess. The surface broke to reveal skin that was not painted on, long soggy hair that had caught the detritus of the river like a fisherman's net. Krishna had seen his mother's dead body and his father's, but this one still startled him.
Krishna dragged the body from the shallows to the damp mud of the bank, shaking off the shivers. He covered her pickled body with his lungi, draping it over her face. He returned to the winter-chilled waters of the Hooghly naked and finished his bath. The sun emerged over the rooftops of Kolkata, a peeled orange behind the smoky veil of monoxides, its twin crawling over the river. Morning reflections warmed the tarnished turrets of Howrah Bridge in the distance, glistening off the sluggish stream of early traffic crossing it.
Other bathers came and went, only glancing at the body. When Krishna returned to the bank, a Tantric priest was crouched over the dead woman. The priest, smeared white as a ghost with ash paste, looked up at Krishna.
"Is this your wife?" the priest asked.
"No," said Krishna. "I don't have one."
"Then maybe you should be her husband."
"What're you on about?" Krishna snapped.
"She needs someone, even in death."
"Maybe she already has a husband."
"If she does, he probably argued with her, then beat her dead, maybe raped her while doing that, and tossed her in the river. Shakti and Shiva, female and male, should be at play in the universe. One should not weaken the other. This woman has been abandoned by man," said the priest, gently touching the dark bruises on her face, throat and chest. Krishna thought about this. The priest waited.
"Fine. I'll take her to the ghat and see her cremated," said Krishna.
The priest nodded placidly. "You will make a good husband one day," he said.
"Your faith in strangers is foolish," muttered Krishna. Not to mention his sense of investigative protocol, Krishna didn't say. The priest smiled, accepting this rebuke and walking away. Krishna didn't know much about how washed-up, likely murder victims were handled, but he was sure just cremating them without a thought wasn't how it usually went.
Krishna looked at the corpse. If he left her, someone would eventually call the police, and they would take her to a refrigerated morgue where her frightened soul would freeze. Her killer would remain free, the case unsolved, because since when did anyone really care about random women tossed into rivers? He thought of his mother cooking silently by lantern light, her face swollen.
He remembered asking a policeman on the street to take his father to jail for hitting his mother. He was laughed at. He remembered playing cricket on the street with the other slum boys, doing nothing to stop the beatings, waiting years until his father's penchant for cigarettes and moonshine ended them instead. Not that it mattered, since his mother faithfully followed him not long after.
"Why don't you take her to the ghat, you self-righteous bastard? You're as much a man as me," Krishna said aloud, looking at the priest, who was sitting quietly by the water. He was too far away to hear Krishna, not that Krishna cared. He shook his fist at the priest for good measure, then he peeled his lungi off the body, leaving the woman naked again. Sullen, he threw the lungi in his bucket and tied another around his waist. He always brought an extra in case he lost one in the water. He kissed his fingertips and touched them to the body's clammy forehead, nervously keeping them away from her parted blue lips. For five minutes he sat next to her, as if in prayer, wondering how he might take her to the cremation ghats. Did the priest expect him to call a hearse, pretend to be a husband, and have her driven there? He shook his head and thought some more.
The priest had disappeared, but Krishna stayed there and thought and thought. Then he shook his head, got up, picked up his bucket and walked away. The sun had risen higher, and the crowds were beginning to gather like flies by the golden water. They looked at the woman lying there on the bank, but, blinded by her nakedness, by the ugly bruises that painted it, they all looked away and went about their day. They ignored her until the moment she got up and started walking across the shore, clumsy but sure, water-wrinkled soles sinking into the trail of footsteps Krishna had left in the mud.
Even then, they didn't look for long, save for one man, who cried out in surprise from afar. An unsurprising reaction, since he'd just seen what he had presumed to be a dead body crawl a few paces, stand up and totter across the mud like a drunk madwoman. But no one else reacted, and he refused to let people think that he too was mad, so he pretended his cry was a prelude to his singing while he bathed, and tried to ignore the sight of the naked woman. Some others left the ghat in haste. The rest of the men took the first observer's cue, looking away from the woman on the shore as they bathed, just as they would look away from a beggar with stumps for limbs hobbling across the ghat. She had gotten up, so she couldn't be dead. Simple as that. Whatever her problem, naked women didn't belong here, where men bathed, parading their lack of shame.
In the morning air, flies clothed the woman. Hesitant crows perched on her shoulders and head forming a feathered black headdress, bristling with flutter. She gave no regard to her beaked guests nor their violence as they haltingly pecked at her flesh, somewhat confused by her movements, but not enough to keep from tasting her ripe deadness.
The spectators stole quick glances at the woman while studiously ignoring her, horrified. This was a very mad woman. Undoubtedly sex -crazed, too, judging from her lack of modesty. Probably drunk. Crazy, for sure. And a junkie, and homeless, and a prostitute. So filthy that the birds were pecking at her. So high, she couldn't feel the pain. Surely someone would call the police.
Carrying her hungry crows unwitting, she staggered on down Babu Ghat, wandering by the slimy stone steps that led to the rest of the city, as if unsure of how to climb them. She eventually found the garbage dump down the ghat and started eating from it.
* * *
Next morning, when Krishna heard that the dead were waking up all over the city — maybe even the state — his first thought was of the dead woman he had left behind on the ghat. He was at a paan shop on Gariahat, near the apartment building where he cooked meals for a few middle-class families in their posh homes, in their fancy kitchens with ventilation fans and shining tiles and big fridges. He was idly spitting betel juice at the footpath when the paanwallah mentioned history happening elsewhere in the city, pointing to a tiny television on top of his little Coke storage fridge.
The paanwallah seemed bemused by the news on the TV, not quite believing it. "No wonder traffic's hell today," he muttered, scratching his whitening moustache. "All morning, this honking, I'm going deaf." He waved at the street and its cacophony of cars, buses, lorries and auto rickshaws stuck bumper-to-bumper like so many dogs sniffing each other's exhaust pipes.
Krishna believed the news instantly. It couldn't be coincidence that he'd discovered a corpse during his morning bath the week corpses started getting up and walking.
His second thought — accompanied by a bit of guilt for it not being the first — was of his mother; then, with some measure of fear, his father. But his parents were cremated and gone, safe from this mass resurrection, unless ash itself was stirring into life to fill the wind with dark ghosts. He also had to look up at the sky to make sure there were no clouds of ashen ghosts raging across it. Thankfully, there was only sunlight suspended in winter smog, pecked with the black flecks of crows.
The realization that his parents couldn't return came as a relief to Krishna, since he didn't know exactly how he'd have dealt with such a thing, especially after they'd been gone for two decades. The surge of elation and dread that rose from that thought filled his chest so powerfully that he had to steady himself against the counter of the paan stall.
Then he thought, I have to find the woman. That his parents couldn't possibly come back to life only bolstered this thought. Surely his employers wouldn't hold it against him if he missed a day, under the circumstances. In fact, Krishna suspected they'd be more preoccupied than most by this turn of events. He suspected that nobody living in those apartments really believed in God, despite their indoor shrines, and what better evidence of Bhagavan than this? It would throw them into confusion. Money and work be damned. For a day, at least.
"I found a dead woman. I left her; I have to find her," Krishna said to the paanwallah, who was fiddling with his paan leaves, as if proud of their very appetizing green. Then Krishna ran off. "Hai-oh, that fellow's looking in the wrong places for a wife," the paanwallah mumbled.
* * *
As Krishna bussed across the city and back toward Babu Ghat, he saw the world as it always was but now a different place. The air you breathed felt different when you knew the dead walked around you. The traffic was even worse off than usual because of the confusion. The police were everywhere, their white uniforms ubiquitous among the crowds on the streets. Krishna heard snatches of conversations in different languages, all talking about the same thing. As sunlight shuttered across the smeared minibus windows, Krishna held his breath against the stink of sweaty passengers pushing up against him and listened. He heard wealthy students and youngsters babble incomprehensible English with unholy excitement, repeating one word, "zambi," which was clearly what they were calling the risen dead. Krishna heard how bodies were rising out of the Hooghly and shambling in diverse but slow-moving crowds across the ghats of Kolkata. How they were falling — half-eaten by birds — from the Parsi Towers of Silence like suicides jumping to their new lives. How the Muslim, Christian and Jewish cemeteries were filled with the faint thumps and groans of the trapped dead, too weak to escape caskets and heavy packed earth. How medical schools and hospitals and police morgues were now dormitories for live cadavers kicking in their steel chambers. How these places were reporting the highest number of corpse-bites in the whole city because of staff convincing themselves that the chilled bodies they were freeing were poor souls mistaken for dead and frozen to drooling stupidity. He felt like he was having a panic attack, so filled was his head with this confusion of voices.
* * *
By the time Krishna got back to Babu Ghat early in the evening, the riverside was packed, like it had been during the immersion of idols after pujas. A column of crows towered above the ghat. The birds wheeled over the parade of the dead, taking turns swooping down and pecking at them. The police were keeping the walking corpses within the ghat by tossing lit (and technically illegal) crackers near their soggy feet every time they tried to wander up the steps. That seemed to do the job, sending the dead staggering back towards the water, though never back inside. Strings of bright red crackers hung from police belts like candy. Some of them held riot shields. In their hands were lathis that they swung in panic if the dead came near their barricade of live bodies. Their hatred for these creatures, these once-humans, was immediate and visceral. After all, every walking corpse on that ghat was a remnant of crimes they'd never solved or missing persons they never found.
Krishna witnessed the resurrection with nauseous excitement.
The Hooghly had disgorged the dead as if they were its children, all wrestling into the sunlight from a giant, polluted birth canal. They shone like infants fresh from the womb, swollen not with fat but water and gas. All stripped naked as the day they were born by water and time. Fifteen, twenty? Could they swim? Had they simply walked on the river's bottom till they came upon this bank, all the while breathing water through their now -amphibious mouths? He was shocked that there had been that many unknown people lying murdered, drowned or mistakenly killed at the bottom of the Hooghly.
Some were only days old, looking almost alive but for their slack faces like melting clay masks, their lethal wounds and bruises, their paled and discoloured skin, their jellied eyes and the sometimes lovely frills of clinging white crustaceans in their hair, the tiny flickers of fish leaping from their muddy mouths. Others were black and blue, bloated into terrifying caricatures of their living counterparts, who watched in droves from behind the lines of fearful policemen at the top of the ghat steps. Fresh or old, all these dead men and women wading back to the world were united by the ignominy of their ends, un-cremated and tossed into the tea-brown waters of the Hooghly to be forgotten. Most, Krishna noticed, were women. All had crows as their punishing familiars, which clung to shoulders and heads as they tore flesh away with their beaks.
Krishna searched for a familiar face amongst the dead. He felt uneasy, not at the sight of the resurrected dead but at the roiling crowd he had to push through to witness this miracle, the street dogs biting and barking amid them to try and get to the corpses, only to be beaten back by the police. Some people lowed like animals, spoke in tongues or pretended to, blabbered prophecy; priests and sadhus and charlatans chanting to eager flocks of potential followers, many calling for the immediate destruction of these men and women who had been reincarnated into their own bodies — a sign, surely, that they were evil, condemned to rebirth as creatures even lower than the lowest of animals because of some terrible karmic debt. It made Krishna uneasy, scared, even angry. Clearly, these people rising from the waters had been wronged, had suffered the injustice of the earthly world, not caused them.
It was a miracle, Krishna told himself. It had to be.
Why, then, did this feel like the end of the world, with the police in their cricket pads and riot shields, the crowds coagulating into a mob, these terribly wronged souls blessed with new life being herded like cursed cattle?
The loud braying of horns and the glare of headlights swept across the crowd as two police vans with grills on their windows ploughed slowly through the crowd, nudging the spectators aside. Men in toxic yellow hazard suits got out. They held long poles with metal clamps, which Krishna had often seen dogcatchers use to grab strays off the streets. They were going to shove the resurrected into vans and drive them away, quarantine them somewhere. And then what? They could do anything to them: destroy them, imprison them. If the world knew about them from the news, they probably wouldn't burn them, however much these policemen might want that. But if they took them away, they would be subject to any and all injustices that scared people could dream up.
As he was thinking this through, Krishna's eyes caught the woman he had found yesterday. She was right there on the ghat. She was a little worse for wear, having spent a day doing whatever she'd been doing. But she was here and still ... well, alive, he supposed. Walking with her resurrected sisters and brothers. Clearly, she had gotten away with being dead and walking around before the rest emerged from the water, perhaps because she'd looked somewhat alive when she washed up. No different from any wretched, broken beggar wallowing in garbage, to the average bystander.
The catchers made it through the crowd and neared the dead. Their plastic visors smudged them into faceless troopers, their poles spears shoved ahead of them, parting the howling people of Kolkata.
"Oh, god," Krishna whispered, pushed from side to side by other sweaty shoulders. "God, thank you. I'm sorry I left her. I won't again. I won't."
He shoved and struggled through the crowd, and shouted as loud as he could from behind the line of police. "My wife!"
Several policemen turned their heads and forced him back into the churn of people. He rebounded off the mob, back onto the officers. "I see my wife! Let me through!" he cried out.
They didn't, but he pushed under their reeking armpits and broke through the line. He felt the sticks lash his back, bruise his shoulder blades, explode over his skin like crackers at the feet of the dead.
My wife. He heard himself. A decision made.
He ran down the crumbling ghat steps, stumbling as the sun sank and sloshed into the waters of the Hooghly. The baying of street dogs and the horns of a million cars stuck on the roads of B.B.D. Bagh rose into the evening, a trumpet sounding the end of an age.
And there she was, her long black hair threaded with garbage, crows on her shoulders. She looked at Krishna. Was there recognition in her eyes? No, she hadn't even awoken to new life when he found her. And yet. For a moment, Krishna hesitated as all the corpses turned their numb gaze upon him, and the cloud of flies surrounding them surged against him, biting like windblown debris. But his fear of the police behind him was far stronger than his fear of the unknown. They would not follow him into this hell, so he ran forward, not back, his feet sliding on the filthy mud. He ran straight into the outreached arms and lizard-pale eyes of the resurrected, towards the woman who was to be his wife.
Excerpted from Breaking Water by Indrapramit Das, Keren Katz. Copyright © 2016 Indrapramit Das. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Breaking Water,
2. Notes on Infancy,
3. Notes on Maturation,
4. Notes on Death,
5. Notes on Afterlife,