Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2022    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Summer 2022


Emily Rinkema
You've Got to be Vigilant, Wes

Kent S. Nelson
Where's Far Away?

Belly Up

Ronita Sinha
The Days of Phirianna

Camille Louise Goering
The Taste of Sand

David Simpson

K. Ralph Bray
Heart With No Companion

Joanna Galbraith
July 13, 1995

Natalie Shaw Evjen
Cost-Benefit Analysis

William French

Writer's Site

Ronita Sinha

The Days of Phirianna

Ma planned a big party for my thirteenth birthday. A piano shaped cake, in deference to my newly-started music lessons, was ordered at Flury’s, the best bakery in Calcutta in those days. The rugs and drapes were dusted, the cutglass polished, and the brass shined. My birthday dress, a coral tulle lined with taffeta, was fitted by one of the tailors from Ripon Street, and around my neck I was going to wear the crystal necklace my aunt from America had mailed. I often removed the ornament from its velvet case and caressed its sparkling facets, the light dripping through my fingers.

While I was trying on the new birthday dress in my room, Phirianna asked me. “What’s a party, Kiki?”

“Umm,” I thought for a moment. “It’s a time when all my friends will come to wish me for my birthday and there will be lots of food and fun.”

Phirianna stared back blankly.

“Besides the neighbourhood ones, all my school friends are invited as well. I shall wear this new dress, and Ma has one for you too,” I added.

“How many school friends do you have?” Phirianna asked.

“Plenty, but I shall tell them all that you are my best friend because you teach me things that none of them knows,” I replied.

At that, Phirianna smiled shyly, her eyes bright with delight.

It was the winter of the year I turned twelve that Phirianna came to work in our house as live-in help. She was thirteen years old—emaciated, chap-skinned, and her fierce hair filled with lice. Her teeth flashed white against her ebony skin, and her front incisors had a gap through which, I would learn in time, she had a habit of wedging a very pink tongue.

She squatted on the verandah floor beside her father. The man’s eyes were hopeful as a seagull parked in the air above a picnic table, while Ma explained the terms of his daughter’s employment. Ma was to money-order her monthly salary to an address he left in an envelope.

“What’s your name?” Ma asked, looking at the girl.

She mumbled a reply that sounded like “Phirianna.” Her speech bore the sing-song cadence of folks that inhabit the villages lining the Bay of Bengal.

“Phirianna,” said Ma gently. “Go with Kiki. She’ll show where you can put your things.”

She held her tin suitcase, a pink lotus painted on the lid, close to her as if it contained not just her meagre possessions, but packed tightly in it were all her dreams, too.

About a week after she started her job, Ma opened the envelope her father had left. She pulled out a scrap of paper on which was pencilled in missionary calligraphy—

Jogen Sardar (father of Philomena Sardar)

C/o Sister Jacintha, Convent of Jesus and Mary

251 Canning Road, Basanti.

24-Parganas South, West Bengal.

Ma threw back her head and laughed, the paper shivering in her hand like an apology.

“Trust the nuns to name a dark, Bay-of-Bengal lass Philomena.” She gasped between fits of laughter. “Christianize them, anglicize them, patronize them, all for a handful of rice.”

“Well then, we should stop calling her by that ridiculous Phirianna and use her proper name,” Baba, without joining in his wife’s laughter, replied from behind the newspaper.

But there was no turning back. Phirianna had already been christened and was not about to be re-christened back to her real name. The new name was etched into the limestone plaster of our red brick house. It ricocheted off the walls uncountable times a day—Phirianna, did you pluck the dry laundry from the clothesline? Phirianna, where are my red socks? Phirianna, did you remember to fill the drinking-water pots? Phirianna, can you massage some Wintogeno into my temples? I have a godawful headache. Phirianna, Phirianna, Phirianna we all chanted and Phirianna, light as a butterfly, flitted around, fulfilling every bidding, till she became the custodian of all our comforts and the uncontested finder of our sundry missing possessions.

She attended to all minor chores that Ma’s part-time scullery maid had no time for. She quickly learned how each of us liked our breakfast toasts, how tepid our milk, how runny our eggs, and made sure my school uniform was on my bed when I emerged from my bath, the pleats of the skirt neatly pressed so they swung ever so slightly when I walked. She knew exactly which day of the week I had to wear my sports uniform and made sure my Keds were Blancoed to a perfect white.

In the afternoons, when we were in school, Ma taught Phirianna the alphabet and it didn’t take her long to graduate to reading simple sentences in Bengali. When I decided to introduce her to the English alphabet from my Better English, Thama, Baba’s mother, said that was not too good an idea. The adults always discussed private family matters in English in Phirianna’s presence.

On the afternoon of my birthday party, Phirianna slipped on her new frock, an inexpensive silk in a happy print. It sat against her dark skin with good-natured defiance. She had a glossy flush in her cheeks, a sheen in her, now lice-free, hair, and a general plumpness endowed by all the rice Ma fed her.

The unfolding day was a shimmering trophy in my hands. My new dress swished against my legs and all thirteen years of me flushed with a grown-up glow. Around my neck hung the string of crystal beads, its brilliance putting every other piece of jewellery in the room to shame. I wore my new princess shoes in which I no longer walked but skimmed the floor as though I was on a stage pirouetting before a spellbound audience.

Stacks of presents, in colourful wrappers, swayed precariously in a corner of the room guarded by my nine-year-old brother who, in a three-piece suit, was stewing to a mottled perspiring heap. The room filled with casual chatter like the hum in a theatre before the curtain goes up. An expensive perfume clung to the air, jolted occasionally by the clink of glasses. Girls, wearing masks of make-up, allowed by mothers for the occasion, strutted on high heels, their nascent breasts accentuated by push-up bras. Everywhere girls masqueraded as women.

Phirianna hovered on the periphery of the action, silent and invisible, clearing glasses and plates with half-eaten food, mopping spills of coke and orange juice with a nimble, working-girl demeanour. At one point, she sidled by me with a kebab on a stick and whispered, “When will you play hopscotch and kabbadi?”

I pretended I hadn’t heard her. Instead, I gathered my friends in a circle and played Passing-the-Pillow to music orchestrated by Baba on the Phillips radiogram. He had his back turned to the players in order to be fair and square when he paused the music. To the catchy beat of Dancing Queen, the game started up, and the pillow jumped rapidly from girl to girl to girl amidst rolling laughter and squeals of glee. Phirianna caught on quickly. She lingered around Baba, and each time the pillow was about to reach me she managed to distract him, keeping him from pushing stop and calling me out. With Phirianna’s active machination, I was declared the winner. The friends clapped and cheered.

“What a shame,” Ma said. “The host cannot be the winner.”

So, I stood in the centre of a charmed circle of twenty-odd aspiring winners, grabbed the red velvet pillow, and threw it high towards the ceiling. The air crackled with excitement. Lace-clad, silk-clad, chiffon-clad arms reached up, and I felt the pressure of warm fragrant bodies as the circle pressed in on me. Before anyone could grab that much-coveted cushion of luck, with a huge whoop, Phirianna swooped in on eagle wings, scattering the little women like a brood of chickens, and grasped the pillow in her strong sinewy arms.

With frustrated sighs, the cluster of contenders collapsed like the sepals of a withered flower. Anger flared in me. I was the original winner but Phirianna stole the prize.

“What does she think she’s doing?” Thama shrieked from her wing-backed chair in the corner. “How dare she?”

“Well, she’s played by the rules and the prize is hers,” Baba declared, raising his hands above his head and clapping loudly.

Amidst high-pitched goodbyes and thank-yous and slamming of car doors, the evening drew to an end. Long after I was in bed, the rattle of utensils and cutlery floated in from the kitchen but I was asleep much before Phirianna retired for the night.

She slept on a straw mat on the floor beside my bed. She was the only person I know who could annihilate a mosquito resting on the inner side of my mosquito net from outside. She stealthily loosened the tucks under the mattress so she had enough of the netting around the bug to clasp between her palms, squishing it in the process. But then, there were plenty of other things that Phirianna could do that never failed to fascinate me.

She would lie there in the dark and tell me stories of her village, Basanti. Stories of the clay hut they lived in, the sea-storms her father and uncles braved to catch fish, and gather honey from the forest filled with wild animals. She said she loved bathing in the Matla river with her sisters, and on hot afternoons while everyone slept, they stole mangoes from the zamindar’s aam-bagan. She giggled quietly at those memories, but her voice held a weight when she talked of her mother boiling yams on a cow dung-fired unoon. And of her sister, Lushi, who, tired and hungry from a day of dung-picking, had eaten one of the yams raw and died of a stomach ache that not even the doctor at the Gosaba hospital could cure.

In the silence that followed, I felt I was looking into a house through the glass insert of a locked door, the key of which was hidden in Phirianna’s tin suitcase. I saw a fragmented world; the vitality and power of a landscape and the stoicism of its people. It was, at once, exciting and terrifying, intimate yet alien, the unseeable painted over by my own ingenuity. I imagined the thundering waves, and the jungles where Royal Bengal tigers freely prowled, crocodiles grinned in the marshes, and migrating birds roosted in ancient trees, under whose canopy the dim earth lay virgin, un-kissed by the sun. Young as I was, I knew Phirianna had sprung from that very soil.

The morning after my party, I woke to the small sounds of Phirianna tidying the room. My sleepy eyes found her by the window with my crystal necklace resting around her neck. In the glow of the morning light, she stood admiring her reflection in the casement glass as though she were gazing upon a deity. Her lips were slightly parted, and her eyes partly shut. The necklace was on fire. Each hungry bead snatched a slice of sun. The velvet skin of Phirianna’s neck absorbed their light and then tossed it in a million pieces across the walls and ceiling of my room, where each danced an elusive waltz.

“What are you doing?” I shattered her reverie. “Return the necklace to my drawer at once.” My voice sounded hoarse, unfamiliar. I could not believe how magnificent my necklace looked on her.

She unclasped it from her neck and turned to me, the string of light winking in her hand.

“Are these diamonds?” Her eyes opened wide.

“Yes,” I replied cruelly, not wanting to extend the conversation and turned over on my side, away from her.

When I came to the table, Phirianna had finished buttering the toasts and asked if I wanted some jam as well.

That same evening, Phirianna sat in the great room, crocheting doilies for Ma while I leafed through one of the books from my presents. She hummed a haunting boat song from Basanti. A song, she said, boatmen sang when they rowed the souls of the newly-dead across the Gangetic delta. Her singing stirred something in me. I walked over to my new piano and tried to play the first few bars of “Row, row, row your boat.” Phirianna sprang to my side and began striking the keys at random. I grabbed her wrist, horrified she would excel at playing the piano, too.

“Stop, stop!” I screamed.

She snatched her hand back and in a voice laced with reproach, said. “I was hoping you’d play hopscotch or kabbadi on your birthday, but you didn’t. We could have both won, you know.”

It’s true, it was Phirianna who taught me to play hopscotch. “Lean back,” she urged as I staggered hopping on one foot, and she showed me the skill of holding my breath as I cried “Chooooooo” while under attack by the foe in a game of kabaddi. She tried to teach me to climb the guava tree in our yard, on whose lower branches I still teetered while she scaled the higher ones with feline grace. Together we dug out shiny pink caterpillars from the garden and stuffed them in matchboxes lined with leaves. We left the holey match-boxes in the small drawer of the hat-rack in the foyer and agonized over when the time would be ripe to discharge the butterflies. After releasing them, we chased them for as far as we could laughing till tears overwhelmed us and joy-cramps split our sides.

When the dying sun painted the garden red, I played with the neighbourhood kids, and Phirianna raced through her chores so she could join us. These kids adored her to a point where it seemed they came to play, not with me, but with her. Phirianna ran the fastest, climbed the highest, skipped rope the longest, and could trip others the quickest by extending a foot just in the nick of time.

Ma said she was adept at such things because she was not raised to be a lady, only a survivor. But I loved Phirianna for all the things that made me envious of her.

One night, we had crab-curry for supper, a rare treat for my brother and me but Phirianna flatly refused to eat it.

“Whoever eats crabs?” She asked no one in particular with an outspokenness to which we were all unwittingly giving in. “My Baba hates them because they get tangled in his fishing net and it’s a pain to get them out and throw them back into the water.”

“So what will you have your rice with?” Ma asked in a voice thin with dismay.

“Why, with my fingers.” Phirianna looked at Ma as if she had to be crazy to ask such an inane question.

And so it was that sitting on her haunches on the kitchen floor, Phirianna ate a mound of fluffy white rice with nothing save the juice of one whole lime and a generous helping of salt.

During the holiday season in October, Phirianna went home on a break. She made preparations for several days. Out came her tin suitcase from under my bed in which she arranged and rearranged her clothes, mostly mine that I had discarded. She pulled a seashell from the bottom of the trunk and held it to her ear. She listened with her eyes. They held a dreamy look in their depths. A smile spread over her face, a pink tongue poking through the gap in her incisors.

“I hear the sea,” she said. “Here, try it.” She held out the shell to me.

A faint rushing filled my ear. Nothing that enchanted me. Although years later, the day my marriage to Rono ended, I pressed a seashell, brought home from our honeymoon in Digha, to my ear, and I probably heard what Phirianna had heard that day. Not just the sea, but the silence of memories, the gliding of time, and the drip-drip-drip of love trickling away.

A neighbour from Phirianna’s village who had business in the city came to take her home. They had to board a bus first, then a train, a ferry and finally trek a good half hour to reach home because there was no easier way for them to do the hundred miles or so. Her eyes glistened as she watched Ma make her a hamper of as much food as she could, and thus weighed down under her baggage, Phirianna duck-walked towards the bus stop. I leaned out of the verandah waving to her until she disappeared around a bend in the road.

Silence stalked me after she left, and regret climbed into my thoughts at night. I still played in the yard with my friends but without Phirianna, it was as if the bass was missing from our band. In the evenings when the sky turned a bruised blue, I could not control myself; I cried for her. I wished I had given her more of my trinkets and my clothes and taught her some English words. My sleep was peppered with dreams of Phirianna. There she was, leaping off a mud porch, her dry hair, redder in the sun, chasing her like a flaming halo as she ran towards me. A wild joy rushed into my heart. Behind her, the bay was a crystal blue and against it stood the village of Basanti, which I could only visit in my dreams.

Phirianna did not return on her appointed day. It was the day we were to attend a wedding, leaving Thama in her care. Instead, Ma had to stay back. My brother and I would go with Baba. I slid my birthday dress over my head and reached into the drawer for my crystal necklace but the case was empty.

We looked for it in every corner and crevice, where we thought it might have found its way, but it was almost as if it had melted into the rusting autumn air.

“No matter how much you train them, give them, in the end, they all turn out to be thieves.”

Thama’s words peeled the skin off my heart. Not Phirianna. Never. I searched for words in her defense, but before I could say anything, Ma stepped in.

“It’s not as if she took cash or gold. It’s only a fake necklace, for goodness’ sake. She is such a young thing, and maybe she couldn’t help herself.”

After a few weeks, we accepted that Phirianna was not likely to return, yet every time the latch of the front gate jangled, I darted out, hoping to see her familiar face.

“She’s not coming back. The children better learn to iron their clothes and make their own beds. Moreover, the government is passing a bill. You can no longer employ children for household jobs,” Baba said, at breakfast one day. “The panchayats are luring them with milk and bread to keep them in school.”

Thama snorted at her son’s words as though she herself was the government. I listened, trapped in a rectangle of sunlight. My fingers felt leaden, unable to lift the spoon to my mouth as I watched helplessly the egg yolk on my plate congealing into a dirty-yellow heart.

More weeks slipped by but Phirianna did not return. Instead, one spring morning brought her father.

His daughter was not going to work anymore, he said. Working in the city had corrupted her, she now wanted to be a memsaheb, a lady, and learn English. She had joined Sister Jacintha’s convent where, in lieu of an education, she worked in the kitchen after school.

“What good is learning ingreeji to a fisherman’s daughter, can you tell me?” Her father, sounding sad and bewildered, looked for support from Ma.

“She’s an intelligent girl, Jogen, she will learn fast and do very well one day. Remember, education can never be useless.”

When Ma placed some money in an envelope and gave it to him, he broke down. Tears wobbled in the hollow of his cheeks.

“I don’t know how I’m going to say this but I’ve come to set right a terrible wrong,” he told Ma. From his weather-beaten bag, he plucked out the crystal necklace. I could barely recognize it. The beads were as dull as the eyes of dead fish. Clinging to its clasp was a large blue crab. By the wiggling of his bag, it was clear there were several more inside.

“My child is young, she made a mistake when she took your diamond necklace. I have come to return it.”

“Whoever said it’s diamond?” Ma was aghast. “She can keep it.”

But the father left it on the verandah floor, where it lay, a sick grey eel curled into itself. When Ma tried to pay him for the crabs, he said, “They are a gift from my girl to yours.”

Ma did not press him anymore.

After he left, I picked up the necklace. It was coated with slime from the crabs with which it had travelled all the way from Basanti. I held it to my ear, half-expecting to hear the sound of the sea. Instead, I heard a deathly silence. I held it under my nose. It smelled of red hair and intolerable grief.

Ronita Sinha resides in Toronto, Canada. This is the second time Ronita has been shortlisted by Sixfold. She was a finalist for Globe Soup’s annual short story content in 2021. Her work has appeared in East of the Web, Globe Soup, the other side of hope, as well as others. In August 2020, she was awarded “Storyteller of the Month” by The Magic Diary. Ronita is a fiction reader for Atticus Review.

Dotted Line