“Oh, Bou forgot to get me some water! How long will she be gone – it’s ages already!”

Puni groped her way across the hut in the dark and found the clay mathia of water. There was a hole in its side and the lump of quicklime with which she had closed it had fallen away. There was no water in the pot. Puni bolted the door shut and set out to fetch some water from the handpump down the narrow lane.

Bright lights had started to wink on the upper floor of Avinash Babu’s house. This is when Manomoyee begins her singing. Puni squats on her verandah, open-mouthed, swallowing the petals of music coming down in a shower. Now she is walking through the darkness of the basti, humming. There are lamp-posts for kerosene lamps but no lamps.

Drunkards stagger through the darkness. The humming stops and Puni walks on, occasionally leaning against the wall of a house for support. The drunks stumble, laugh, and belch loudly. Fires from kitchens, peeping through windows, light up the back of someone’s shirt, one side of someone’s head. Ahead of her are the huts in which her friends Kajalmati and Juhikadhi live.

Puni is forbidden to go that way – her mother Jema has given her strict orders. A large crowd is squeezed into the little shop where illicit liquor is sold, squabbling and grumbling. The smell of burnt liquor rises from the meandering lanes of the basti. Nakadharapur comes alive in the darkness.

Someone is walking towards her in the dark, the tip of a glowing bidi coming closer. “Who is that – Sania, is that you?”

“Oh, it’s my Puni, my punei chanda!” Sania said. “Caught you at last!”

“Let go my hand, let me go or you’ll be sorry! What’s the matter with you, can’t you stand still for a moment? Let me smell your mouth! Un-hun! you told me you’d given it up!”

Sania laughed. “There, you see – not a drop! But can I help it if the sight of you makes me drunk? How can I give that up? The knot cannot be loosened now.”

“Your head cannot be loosened! Shall I shout and call some people?”

“That blow on my back was like a flower dropping from a tree! One more, Puni, I beg you! From your hand I’ll take anything – you’ll see! You’ll be the queen and strike me in anger and I’ll turn my back and say, ‘One more, one more, Puni; my back is itching for it’.”

He performed a pantomime. Puni laughed.

“Which jatra did you learn that from, Sania?” Puni asked. “You’re becoming more effeminate every day. Have you been doing the queen’s role in a jatra?”

“Well, if you are going to be the king, I can only be the queen!” he said. “Shall we go and see the jatra? Let’s run away! I ask you every day but you never come!”

“I’ll never come with you!” she said firmly.

“Why, are you afraid I’ll eat you up? Really, Puni, you must come with me some day! See how exciting the night is! Come, I will be a babu and you my babuani and we will go roaming together. You’ll see how many things I’ll get for you....”

“Oh yes, I know what you’ll get...a toothless comb from some garbage heap and somebody’s broken mirror. That’s as far as your love can stretch! And just for that I should go roaming with you all night?”

“What can I do, Puni? I push the shit-cart around town all day and what do I get for it? Four paisas from the boss in the evening! And if I am a little slow, he will cut half my wages. What’s left would slip through the cracks between your fingers.”

“The cracks in the liquor shop, you mean?”

“Yes, go ahead, taunt me! You’ll learn to sing the tune once the burden falls on your shoulders. You will say, one more bottle, my husband...”

“Run away now, you talk too much!”

“What have I said wrong? What do you know of hard work? Can anyone manage without a drop now and then? Who doesn’t drink except you? The place where your mother gave birth to you must have been a bed of roses! She says, my daughter is a flower- petal. She’ll never go to work! The sun and the dew won’t touch her; she will spend her life in a jhulana, being rocked to sleep!”

“Will you stop talking rubbish?” she said. “Or, I’ll bite your ear off.”

“Children from babu families don’t bite!”

“No, they only fondle! As if you’ve seen everything with your own eyes!”

“How can I tell you what my heart wants?” he said. “When we set up our own home, I will keep you like a flower. You’ll see! If I had the money, I would buy a new sari for you every day, cover you with gold. No, I can’t go on doing this kind of work all my life – I’ll have to do what old man Dhani Budha says.”

A shiver went through her. Sania is a fool! There’s nothing he won’t do for her. She’s fond of him; they have been together since they were children, since he was a toddler with dust in his hair. Puni has grown up and Sania is in full youth. Each time he sees her his mind is filled with pictures of the babu’s world. Then he goes to Dhani Budha for advice. That could be fatal! Her chest trembles.

“What did you say? Dhani Budha? When did you become his chela?”

“So what? What he says is true. Come with me and listen to him! There’s no sin in stealing, he will tell you, but losing is a sin. We become thieves without stealing, sinners without sinning. What do we have to lose? Some are born clever; they come into the world loaded with money and can afford to sit back while their slaves sweat for them! But why should we be the ones to starve? How pretty you would look if you wore a red sari! When I walk past the jewellers’ shops at night, my eyes are dazzled by the glitter. Oh, how can I tell you how restless my mind becomes then! Not one of the other girls can compare with you, but you don’t have a single good sari to wear. Dhani Budha isn’t lying!”

“Keep quiet, Sania; someone might hear you. Your head isn’t in the right place. Be careful! They will tie you up and thrash you till your bones are powder! If you listen to what Dhani Budha tells you, I’ll not speak to you again! You’re a wild one anyway. But go now, Bou might have come back.”

“May the gods save us from that Bou of yours!” he said. Having described her at some length, he ran away, singing a song to himself. Puni’s love for him spilled over after he had gone. Her eyes followed him into the darkness. The scraping of one body against another tells a story; one wants to step aside and stop awhile to savour the sensation; your whole being tingles. When the person you love has gone, the mind grows weak with yearning. Why can’t she go too? Bou must be back.

She felt depressed. She’ll ask me where I had gone and give me such a scolding! Tear me to pieces! She’ll give me all the love in the world but won’t let me out of her sight. No trace of Sania. His hut is only a couple of steps away.

Puni was rooted to the spot like a shadow. The images of happiness that her mind created flitted dimly before her eyes in an unending pageant. She could see the future in shades of white and black: crowded with people; a world full of splendid houses and wretched huts; dust and smoke. On the side, somewhere, a thatch that was bowed to the ground. Two marigold plants in the courtyard. And then....?

Consciousness returned. Avinash Babu’s palatial home, with the lights burning bright. Manomoyee’s song wafted down to her. Sania...the liquor shop...the cart full of filth...Dhani Budha’s rambling...Manomoyee’s sari...the great house...what could Aghore Babu be doing?...everything scrambled together.

How could one be reborn as Manee or Aghore? Poverty has no reach there, strife and conflict cannot enter; no getting scalded in the sun, no soaking in the rain...no sweating after you have done your share of labour. Eating a bellyful without moving hand or foot, eating good food, wearing clean clothes, playing music on costly machines. It’s all a dream. What does one have to do to get there?

Harijan: A Novel

Excerpted with permission from Harijan: A Novel, Gopinath Mohanty, translated from the Odia by Bikram Das, Aleph Book Company.