Every Sunday, as soon as Raghav comes from Lord’s Bungalow, Raghav and his little sister Lakshmi, who was three years younger to him, would go for a walk. They would turn to the left, crossing the paddy fields, visiting the path that led to Lord’s other Bungalow called Guest House.
They walk as if they are on a march, and when the thatched roofs become rare and rare, they would pick up the pace a bit more and settle on the shore of Champavati. The river, his mother told him to worship and his father's livelihood till he was hanged or killed by the Lord. Raghav never knew how he was killed or on what charges, but when a couple of White police accompanied by Indian guards came to his home, he knew he would be working for the Lord for a very long time.
The brother and sister were small and thin for their clothes. Raghav had to wear whatever he gets at the Bungalow and the little money he saved goes to buying things for his sister. They both have brown eyes and brown skin, and whenever Raghav worked in the fields of the Lord, he was usually covered in the mud till hips and the Lord would bark, “You brown dogs, look at the colour of the mud and your skin, fitting jobs you’all got didn’t you?” and walks away.
Raghav and Lakshmi never spoke during these walks to the shore, because they always saved the words for the nights. They would sit at the shore, playing with the water and Raghav trying his best to catch the fish. Lakshmi builds castles of sand every week, but not one of them is sustained till the next week. When it gets dark and Raghav lights up the lantern, Lakshmi would say, “It’s like with Amma and Appa, just like in the home.”
“Just like those days”, Raghav would affirm.
And then they would trace the same path, side by side, often Raghav holding Lakshmi’s hands and their minds full of warm memories of their past.
One week, Raghav would work on the farm or if he gets any luck, he would work in Lord’s Bungalow. Lord Andrew Silverman, was the Special Collector sent from England to Visakhapatnam agency to curb the eschewing militancy. It’s been some four months, the last militant was shot and dead, so Andrew took up to torturing the Indians he could set his eyes on and the lot is composed mostly of his workers.
Andrew would pass comments of loathing and his disgust on Raghav every time he sees him, but Raghav has no choice as he would never get any work on any farm if he angers Andrew. But Andrew on one fine day, coming out of his room, saw Raghav cleaning the chandelier light, and asked him, “What do you want to do when you grow up you brown worm?”
“I... I would like to buy some land, my Lord. If that’s not possible, there’s always my father’s net and the river”, Raghav said, curtsying.
“I would give you the money if you prove to be faithful”, Andrew said and walked away.
Raghav was faithful, if not loyal like a hound for two years, but never again Andrew thought of his promise. Nor did Raghav have the guts to ask his master. He was content with his life, content but sad.
During one of those walks, Raghav and Lakshmi found an ear-ring, something other than gold, when Raghav took it to Andrew he said it was some copper and paid him an Ana. The next week, Lakshmi was surprised to see her castle made of sand work standing tall on the shore. They both stretched themselves out on the grass side by side, without speaking, listening to the birds. When they’re about to leave, Raghav found something moving in the bushes and when he walked towards the crossing at the other end, he saw a young woman, crossing the river. She was tall, draped in a saree, saree only for Raghav didn’t see anything covering her shoulders and the skin below her neck.
As soon as she saw him, she covered herself properly and smiled at him. Raghav returned the smile and walked towards his sister before asking, “Lakshmi, shall we leave?”
The next week, Lakshmi saw two of her sandcastles as if they were built with rocks. She asked her brother, “They are not stamped by cows or buffaloes, and nor the winds didn’t ruffle them. How is it possible?”
“I do not know”, confessed Raghav.
Soon they would lie on the shore, losing themselves seeing the sky and the river. The woman who was seen last week appeared again, and this time she was in proper attire. It pleased Raghav to see her, though he didn’t know the reason. Lakshmi and Raghav never spoke of her, but just felt glad for her company, without having a clue or understanding why.
The woman was tall, freckled and her eyebrows were perfectly aligned; her feminine presence was felt.
“A girl typical of Tanda”, Raghav thought.
Lakshmi asked her, “Do you always come here?”
The woman replied, “Yes, I do, in fact, I had to”, she added, “I see you every week, who are you?”
Raghav, more daring than his sister looked into her eyes as he said, “I work for Lord Andrew, and she’s my sister, and very soon Lord Andrew would give me some land.”
“Lord Andrew”, she smiled bitterly, “I am called Ragini, I tend to the garden of the guest house. We both work for one man, an outsider.”
A moment later, she added, “I saw you cleaning the chandelier one day.”
Raghav didn’t utter a word as he saw two black marks on her wrists, curved and length of match sticks.
That was all, Lakshmi and Raghav turned their backs and walked away. But the following Sunday, on seeing them, her lips widened into a smile.
Approaching them, Ragini asked, “What do you do here coming every week?”
Lakshmi replied, “Take rest” before laughing.
Ragini opened the cloth bag she was carrying and gave them two laddus, “From Andrew’s house, he always gives us some.”
Lakshmi began to eat and Raghav wrapped it in his shirt. Throughout the next week, Raghav and Lakshmi thought of her all week and spoke of her.
This continued for some weeks, she gave them whatever she brought and they talked. The three of them sat there, side by side, eyes looking at the river, they talked about everything they know.
One day, when Raghav was mopping the floor, he overheard something Andrew spoke, “Just like his father... yes... yes… toils every day expecting that I’d give something someday.”
Raghav knew his master was drunk, so he shook off this from his mind and continued the work.
A few weeks later, the Lord’s Lady came to visit him. Meghan was her name and she never spoke to anyone except Andrew. Every sigh of her was cold, and whenever she crossed Raghav, she tried her best to express her disgust by twitching her lips, scowling and calling him names. That Sunday, Raghav and Lakshmi waited for Ragini, but she never came. So they went home and did not speak of her.
The next week too, she did not show up. Raghav came again to see her coming from the bushes with a hood and sauntering across the road in the attempts of not to be seen. He didn’t dare to confront and ask her, he regretted not doing so later.
It was only a couple of weeks later Lakshmi was convinced that Ragini left the village and no sweets Raghav bought made her happy. Lakshmi longed for their friend, not for the sweets. The next week, Lakshmi did not even come for the walk, but Raghav did. She was not to be seen again.
Raghav was unable to sleep that night, so he ventured out to the shore expecting none but dogs. But there were some people on the shore, shouting and talking loudly. There was a woman lying on the grass and Meghan was kicking her.
“You shameless wench!”, she shrieked, “How dare you confound my husband”, Andrew stood there, helpless and not interfering.
“You slept with a brown whore?”, she turned to Andrew, “What kind of man are you? Has she got anything better than me?”
Andrew Silverman, the Lord, stood there with his mouth shut and gaping at her wife. “Oh, nice, round and firm right?”, Meghan barked in disgust.
“Break her legs”, she commanded and one of the police standing next to Andrew obeyed and switched her.
“Now, now... no one from this wretched village should come and save you”, she roared in anger, “You will crawl to death here in this cold.”
Andrew did not say a thing, clearly outvoiced by his woman. Then Meghan kicked her again and all the company left.
It was a couple of hours to Sunrise and Ragini was in a cot and Raghav was warming up to her injuries. Lakshmi was still asleep, not knowing what happened.
“Why did you save me?”, Ragini asked.
“Because you’re my friend”, Raghav said honestly.
“But if they know”
“I can hide you for a couple of days and after that”, Raghav hesitated.
“After that?”, Ragini added, “Do you know who I really am?”
“I know”, Raghav blurted out, “I know who you are. A devadasi pledged to all the men in the village.”
He stood there, looking at his feet and feeling guilty for spitting it on the face.
“How do you know?”, Ragini asked surprised.
“The black marks, I mean the black snakes”, Raghav added, “Father told me once what they are.”
They did not speak to each other for hours and it was only after sunrise, Ragini uttered a word again, “Do you know why your father was killed?”
“No”, Raghav said honestly, “He was spying on the Congress or for someone, I was told.”
Ragini smiled coldly.
“Your father loved a woman”, she set her throat straight, “And Lord Andrew wanted the same woman.”
“Who was she?”, Raghav asked absently.
“The one you saved yesterday.”
The void rocked in Raghav’s mind. His mouth went dry and he felt restless suddenly. His knees were pulling him down and he knelt before saying, “So my father was killed because Andrew wanted you?”
“After your mother died birthing Lakshmi, your father loved me and I loved him back. But Andrew, who came to the village and understood it’s customs, said he would have the claim on me. But your father didn’t budge. So he was shot”, Ragini finished trying to hide her anger.
“So, what do you want me to do now Ragini?”
It was the first time Raghav uttered her name.
“We are going to Visakhapatnam”, she said, “away from this wretched village and evil people.”
We don’t have any money, Raghav was about to say, but Ragini continued, “Whenever I pleased Andrew he used to pay me and I hid all of that in the guest house itself.”
“Where?”, Raghav gasped, opening his mouth.
“You know it, you held it and cleaned it more than anyone did”, Ragini said knowing Raghav got this.
“Tell Lakshmi we are leaving this afternoon.”
Raghav walked to Andrew’s guest house one last time. He cleaned the chandelier for one last time. Emotions filled him so he couldn’t even walk properly. If he had only known.
This short story has been redrafted by Harsha Modukuri & R. S. Chintalapati into a short story titled “Brownlings”. Read the redraft online and support the community by ordering a paperback.
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