Further to the previous post, here’s the story which was originally published in Serendipity. It’s a weird little magic realist tale, quite different to anything else I’ve done before or since, and essentially a probably foolish attempt at a positive commentary on a dark issue.
I don’t want to talk about the merits of the story, but it’s here for you to do what you want. Remix. Cut, change, alter, transform, rewrite. Keep as much or as little as you like. Tell a different story with these building blocks.
It might not be easy, but then again, writing isn’t really that easy. It’s released under a Creative Commons license which can be seen at the end of the story.
It’s yours now, people. Remix. Send me the finished results and I’ll post them here. Feel free to link to this from your own blog; the more people who can participate, the more interesting the project will be.
UPDATE: It’s been mentioned to me that this story could invite some kind of racefail, so if you are planning on remixing this, the only thing I’d ask is to please remain sensitive to the cultures – if indeed you want to keep them. (You could, for example, change them completely to other cultures.)
Salam and Baseema
Salam Singh glances over his shoulder across the road where neon signs offer every kind of food at a discount rate. Scents of garlic and ghee and breads cling to his leather jacket. Desi men huddle together, casually watching passers by. They step in and out of evening shadows.
Music blaring from shop doorways. Phone cards to Asia, cheap as chutney. Cars lurching around the traffic junction, almost surfing his feet, although they’re less confrontational than the routes he remembers back in Punjab, but this is England, and even though he is in the middle of the Asian community, on a street where you can buy jalebis for less than a quid for breakfast, and visit a bazaar on Saturdays, weather permitting, he feels more exposed than a white man on the streets of Chandigarh.
As long as Salam is in people’s vision—under anyone’s gaze—he knows he can remain safe. In some hidden corner they’re probably watching him, waiting for him to make that mistake of stepping where none of the city’s many CCTV cameras can track you. It makes meeting Baseema so much more difficult, but there isn’t much choice. Perhaps he should find somewhere more discreet, but here, in front of everyone, he hopes at least he can meet her without a direct threat.
‘Chutiyah.’ The word is whispered from the darkness. Could have been spoken by any number of people. He knows the obscenity is directed at him from someone who wants to kill him, someone from his own community. A gora wouldn’t do his research to be so offensive—white boys use the usual ‘Paki’ and follow it up with a fist or a blade. Salam’s dealt with that before, sure, beaten up anyone who’s tried it on, left them bleeding on the road. He’s had his fair share, too, like most Asian kids—punches to the ribcage, knives to the throat. By skinheads twenty years ago, people with more hair now. Or caught between black gangs pitching for concrete turf.
Politicians have other things to talk about. In this city it’s all about the Polish these days anyway, and no one looks upon this street, the one someone took right out of India.
He has a nagging sensation he’s out of his depth.
With no one stopping to make more of it, he assigns the comment to his paranoia.
Finally, a car pulls up.
A girl opens the rear door, makes a move to get out, then pauses.
She gestures for him to come to her, the subtle and teasing tilt of the wrist. Black hair, black trousers, sari. Gold and red bangles next to the Dolce & Gabanna bag like she’s stepping right out of the DVDs he buys in bulk in Southall when he visits his Aunt Jaswinder. Sunglasses at night. This girl is his Aishwarya Rai. His Rani Mukherji. Next to her he’s Aamir Khan, all ruffled hair and high cheekbones, a dazzling Basmati-white smile, and every bit as fragrant. On a bigger screen there’d be a song as he sees her, and he knows it.
Cautiously, she beckons him to the car—a small gesture, a tilt of the wrist. He looks around, straightens the collar on his jacket, flips up his sleeve to reveal his new bracelets and rings. Then he struts.
Her name is Baseema and she’s all he ever dreamed of.
Trouble is, like most dreams, she’s almost out of reach.
The car door closes. Wheels spin. The taxi heads out past Asda, up towards the Ring Road with a lurch that forces them into an embrace that would’ve happened anyway. Inside the car they kiss, unable to let go, tongue sliding over tongue. It might be out of sheer desperation for their situation. Might even be the danger. Or it could simply be because they’re teenagers in love. Salam can’t be certain of which.
He looks at her, then to the rear-view mirror, at the driver’s eyes, gora eyes.
‘I’ve missed you,’ Salam says. ‘I tried to text—’
‘He took my phone.’
She nods. ‘I’ve not got long.’
‘Where we going?’
‘Who knows,’ she says, and he doesn’t want to think about any of the double meanings behind her words.
When they kiss again he notices something’s not quite right, the texture of her lips perhaps.
With all the suddenness of an emergency stop, she lurches back, holds his face, and says, ‘Salam, he’s going to kill us.’
‘Baseema, you have brought upon this household great shame,’ her father said, his eyes full of contempt, hands energised like those of a prophet. His usual pose, in his usual grey trousers, blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
‘I know, Father, I’m sorry.’ She looked left. She looked down. She looked anywhere but at him.
‘This will not do. He is Sikh.’
‘He doesn’t take it seriously though,’ Baseema said.
‘This is supposed to make it better, no? A boy with half a faith? Accha! I have lined up for you a good Hindu boy and this is how you treat me. You kiss him, your hands all over him. And in public! And your wedding to Anish is entering the planning stage. And do you know what people will be saying about me? This isn’t good for business.’
‘But I love him!’ Baseema said, tears pooling on the tip of her chin.
‘I won’t hear anymore of it.’ He moved to strike her, then paused, as if to think better of it, something he seldom did. ‘Go help your mother. Now.’
‘But, I do. I really do love him.’
‘His reputation is bad. He has no future.’
‘He’s got a job—’
‘Selling trainers and baseball caps, no? And a Sikh with no turban! Useless boy. I won’t have it, and that’s my final word. Would you dare go against my word? I’ll beat you.’ He stood, gesturing towards his belt as if to say, Try me, just try me, and maybe he would next time.
She shook her head, then left the room to the sounds of “Suhana Safar Yeh Mausam” while her Uncle Indra nodded his head to the rhythms as if in a permanent state of trance.
‘I can’t run forever,’ Salam says. ‘I can’t keep hiding like this. We’re always, like, having to get from place to place really quickly. I don’t like it.’
They are running through the city centre, heading towards the bus stop, the rain fizzing on the pavement. Old ladies in wet coats. Young ladies in soaked summer dresses. Men standing near John Lewis laughing at everything, smoking. White, black, brown—every colour with something to live for except Salam and Baseema, whose dangerous love affair has become the talk of their neighbourhood. Salam is annoyed. No father to turn to, no mother to help him out. All he has is Baseema, and she’s part of the problem.
‘But he’ll kill you,’ Baseema says. ‘He’s said as much. If he sees us together he’ll beat me again. Look at this—’ She lifts up her black shirt to reveal a bruise across her hips.
‘Bas,’ Salam says, in a state of shock. ‘How could he—’
‘He gets what he wants. You know how important his reputation is. I’ve overheard him talking, you know. Now people are, like, looking for you.’
‘We could leave the city,’ Salam says, filling with hope. ‘We could go together. Go anywhere! Make a start. Change our names. Mr and Mrs Sanjay Smith.’
‘He has car dealerships everywhere! He’d find us.’
‘Then what d’you suggest?’ Salam says, his hands out wide, rain streaking down his shirt.
‘I’ve told you, you’ll find out when we’re there.’
‘Where the hell’s there?’
‘Here.’ She indicates the 193 to Wollaton.
‘Where we going?’
‘To solve our crisis, innit.’
They clamber onboard the 193, condensation on the inside, rain on the outside, a cluster of faces damp and miserable. Pneumatic hiss. A crunch of gears. They head west across the city, holding hands, staring around, examining every face for signs of murder.
Luckily, there is none, and upon realising this, in the sanctum of the bus, they kiss again, Salam’s hands sliding in an explorative fashion along Baseema’s thigh. There are so many words for love in Hindi and Punjabi yet none of them describe what he feels. What she is to him transcends language, transcends culture. Nothing can describe this most simple of emotions.
If only her father would agree, she thinks, realising that not all fathers in her culture think like he does.
Ten minutes later they disembark at Wollaton, near the small cluster of shops the other side of the Ring Road. They walk past the roundabout, then back down a lane of houses much more glamorous than Salam’s bedsit. Maybe one day he’ll save enough to live somewhere this nice, somewhere for him and Baseema. The rain ceases, the air a little fresher than before. Baseema pulls him down a driveway to a 1930s semi.
‘Here we are,’ she says.
‘The answer to our problems. Now, Salam, I want you to be careful. Treat this woman with the greatest of respect.’
‘Who is she?’ He stares into her bright round eyes that seem nestled more than usual into the dark delights of her face. All he wants is to be with her. Is that too much to ask?
The word strikes Salam hard. Witch.
They knock on the door, regard the garden. Baseema points out plants. Roses. Buddleias. Mint. Rosemary.
The dull churn of the road in the distance.
The door opens of it’s own accord, like some ridiculous horror movies Salam watches with Dave after shifts in the stockroom at JJB Sports. Smells of curry. Wafts of incense smoke. A vague drone of music, a radio tuned to B4U. And there is something otherworldly that Salam can’t place. Apart from that one sensation, it doesn’t much look or feel like the residence of a witch.
‘Kaminay! Well don’t just stand there,’ a voice shouts, heavily accented in Indian. ‘This house is gas central heating. I’m not made of money!’
With more bustle than a street market crowd, Salam and Baseema enter the house and shut the door. An old woman hobbles down the stairs in traditional Hindu clothing, both her floorboards and ankles creaking, then when she reaches the bottom she eyes them with an intensity Salam hasn’t known since his before his grandmother died three years ago. ‘Salam. Baseema. You’re here at last.’
‘How . . . ‘ Salam says. ‘How did you know our names?’
‘Koothay!’ she says, waving her hands in despair, surprisingly energetic for someone so old. ‘Baseema e-mailed me yesterday.’ She regards Baseema. ‘Where did you find such a bright one, no?’ The old woman limps into another room, indicating for them to follow. ‘Come, come.’
After they are seated on the floor in a room covered with drapes, the woman—the Chudail—brings ghee sweets and tea.
‘What is it you want? Tell me,’ the witch says.
Salam shrugs, stares at Baseema, who, with a sigh, begins their story.
After ten minutes the witch gazes towards them, and it occurs to Salam that her eyes are stereophonic, pointing in different directions. In another room, Sherlyn Chopra’s voice drifts, invitingly.
‘You wish for protection only?’
She points to Baseema. ‘Speak!’
Baseema says, ‘I don’t want my father hurting. I just need to know that Salam and I can be safe. Safer, at least. We’re desperate. Please, help us.’
‘A simple task, although the will of the gods will determine the full outcome,’ the witch says, then leaves momentarily in a haze of aromatic smoke. She returns with a plate, and several tiny gold statues of various animals. Salam notes a tiger and an eagle. The witch spits on them, scrapes her saliva in patterns around the plate, begins an incantation in a language that is nearing Punjabi, then drifts beyond that, a hushed murmuring that possibly transcends any understanding. Smoke sizzles up from the statues and for a brief moment Salam thinks ghosts have entered the room. It happens so quickly he can’t be certain.
‘It is done, isn’t it,’ the witch says.
‘What, just like that?’ Salam says. He wants to ask more questions, but the look she gives him informs says that this would be unwise.
Baseema smiled awkwardly at the introduction. It wasn’t as though he was offensive, was it? It was more the fact that he hadn’t asked for the introduction at all, and neither had she.
She liked to decide things for herself. She decided to watch Coronation Street when Uncle Indra wanted to watch the Zee Cinema channel, again—and when he wasn’t watching that he was fixed to B4U Music to watch the women dance with all those hip-swaggers and body shapes and the wide eyes and blinding smiles, so Baseema was perfectly entitled to watch the one thing she wanted to, thank you very much. Besides, it wasn’t as though he didn’t spend enough time with TVs what with his repair shop, sitting there in the back room tinkering with one eye fixed on another screen. Every other month they’d be staring at a bigger screen, a maker she’d never heard of and from a very questionable source. Sometimes she thought Uncle Indra would prefer to live his life in the movies. In her happier days she remembered him dancing through the lounge as her mother cooked samosas, picking her little frame up and spiralling her around to some tabla beat. The movies were maybe not such a bad place. Sometimes she felt an urge to join him, for the happy endings.
Her father insisted on her studying Business Studies at university, that it would give her a head start. Business was important, young lady, business will get you places. She said she didn’t want to do that, but study fashion, then it started the biggest argument, raised voices, and where her mother would end up crying into the sorghum flour. To stop her mother being upset, Baseema agreed to do what her father instructed. She knew her place. She didn’t get to make many of her decisions.
He was one of the most well respected Hindus in the East Midlands. A man at the helm of dozens of businesses, and drove a Mercedes Benz, yessir. His empire included car dealerships, curry houses, a string of student properties from Sneinton to Lenton. Fingers in other daals, too, but she rarely knew about those, and he never spoke of them. A proud man, he was a noted member of the community, a donator to charity when he could afford it, and a demon leg-spin bowler on Sundays, in the fashion—so he always claimed—of the great Subhash Gupte, with a best of 8 for 34—howzat!
It was her father who had made this next decision, to arrange for this meeting with this boy, someone no older than she was and who seemed more frightened than was really necessary for the occasion.
‘Hullo,’ the boy said.
They held each others gaze for about a second, maybe less. Whilst their families clustered like storm clouds, she looked away into the distance, with troubled thoughts. Would this be the man she spent the rest of her life with?
She was so bored of him already, and he’d only said the one word.
‘This is Anish,’ her father said. ‘He is being training for computing, isn’t that right Anish? Top cent-per-cent.’
Her father slapped the young lad on the back. ‘Anish’s father owns several electronic shops from Birmingham to Leicester. I think such a union would be proud for our family, no? Don’t you think so?’
Too skinny, she thought. No muscles. Too quiet. Too ugly. His nose is the size of Rajasthan. More to the point, he wasn’t someone she chose. She wanted Salam. Handsome, dangerous Salam. An air of mystery about him. Someone who could make her laugh. It didn’t matter he didn’t have a proper job. He made her feel so wonderful, so aroused. When he kissed her, new realms were opened up. Salam was a passionate man. And his eyes were to die for.
Would there be any choice in this? Is this really how things were in the Twenty-first Century? It wasn’t as though she hated arranged marriages—she had known some very happy outcomes. Years of bliss. Some of her friends still wanted to be wed in such a way, made things easy for them. It was just that it wasn’t for her. Her heart wasn’t in it. Her heart was elsewhere. Her heart was with Salam Singh.
The boy in front of her was nothing more than a business transaction.
‘Baseema?’ her father said. ‘You would think this would serve our family well, this union?’
Forest Fields, 4a.m. Salam doesn’t have enough money for the taxi ride back because all his loose change has been invested in chips and a Pepsi Max, so instead he’s forced to shamble across streets he knows aren’t safe. He doesn’t care. Tonight he has managed to see Baseema in Media, best nightclub in Nottingham for DJs. Echoes of the whole Asian Underground scene of a few years back, but this time a bunch of butchered remixes of Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney and none of those wannabe DJs should be forgiven for their sins. R&B, if you please. However, he has, for the moment, got his fix of love.
It comes back to him in staccato drunken images—
Dancing with Baseema. Hands on her waist for much of the evening. Standing in shadows, his lips over hers as the strobe light and the music thump in time. He remembers licking up her neck. Remembers her sitting on his lap near the sofas. Carling, £1 a pint, a bargain. The two of them. No one else. No family interfering, denying them the only thing they want.
Now, his Pepsi drunk and him needing to urinate in the next half hour, chips beginning to form a not-unpleasant starchy residue in his gums, Salam stumbles, largered up, across the vacant roads of the city. How much longer will he have to put up with this secrecy, this torturous hiding?
Two clicks—he knows knives have been drawn. Salam looks around, can see nothing but the harsh sodium glare of the streetlights.
‘Salam . . . ‘ The voice is vaguely recognisable although three figures walk in front of shuttered windows behind which last summer you could buy Indian and Pakistani World Cup shirts for the price of a phone card.
The streets are a blur. ‘Who—?’
‘Leave her alone, chutia. You’ve already been told to get away from her. Call this your final warning, yes?’
Chip wrapper falls to the ground as Salam lurches backwards from the three tall men. Asian, scarves around their mouths, baseball caps drawn down low. Nike Air. Six inch blades in the hands of two of them.
The other holds a long metal pole, points it in Salam’s direction.
‘Leave who alone?’ Salam says, thinking it a useless thing to say.
‘If it isn’t you, Salam, it’s gonna be her, innit. You’ll both be dead. You don’t want that. Just leave her alone.’
Before he knows it the metal bar is brought into his stomach repeatedly, folding him to a right angle. He throws up down the his Hugo Boss shirt he bought cheap in TK Maxx. Salam falls backwards, clutches the wall for stability. The bar is brought across his back and he falls forward into the wall, then onto his knees, vaguely aware of his grazing, glad that the alcohol is numbing his pain. He crouches like a dog, spits the last of his sick on the pavement. A boot into his ribs, into his face, and Salam coughs blood.
To one side he suddenly notices a shape—notices it only because it glows white. It is an ethereal business, a brightness not even the streetlamps can match. His pummelling ceases as the three men step back. The glow forms the shape of a tiger, only it’s twice the size of anything he’s ever seen on TV, possibly four times, and makes Sheer Kahn look like a kitty. A white tiger. Growling. Walking forwards, muscles gliding beneath the fur. Through metal railings that remain intact after it passes. The three men are stationary, cemented to the spot by this most ghostly of glares from the tiger.
The animal gazes across them as if it’s reading a menu. It chooses the one with the bar in his hands, leaps forwards with an almighty spectral pounce, forces the assailant to the pavement. A crunch of spine, a smash of skull. Blood pools darkly across the road. The other two sprint past the ghee shop, arms windmilling, their footsteps loud in the absence of sounds before the dawn.
‘What,’ Salam says, staggering upright, ‘what took you so long?’
The tiger ghost regards Salam for what seems like a day before commencing with the meal.
Uncle Indra watched his brother open the boot of the car. From where it was parked, you could see the old Newstead mine site in the distance. No one had passed by for ten minutes, a child on a bicycle the last figure fading into the dusk. Wind rippled across a darkening field of grass. Terraced cottages stood behind, waiting to become derelict.
‘Bhai. Come closer.’
Indra walked around to see inside the boot, and his eyes widened in shock. He never expected a handgun to be so big. His brother smiled, placed a hand on Indra’s shoulder with a firmness that said, It’s okay, trust me.
Indra spoke in Hindi. ‘You want me to do it?’
‘I’m her father. If this doesn’t work, I’ll get involved. I want to try getting some young men to rough him up a bit first. See how that goes. It might be enough. This is our second plan. I want you to know about it now, early, so you have time to prepare mentally. Third, I’ll deal with Baseema personally, okay? Keep it in the family, though, no?’
Indra said, ‘Where did you get the gun?’
‘Best you don’t ask.’
‘When is a good time?’
‘Whenever you feel it necessary,’ his brother said. ‘Just bear in mind our reputation if she persists with this Salam boy. Think of the business lost. I’ll give her a chance, but we must find an appropriate time.’
‘Where shall we get rid of his body?’
‘I have any number of business channels through which to dispose of it. I know of construction companies . . . ‘
‘A good choice,’ Indra said.
A flock of starlings began to carve arcs into the sky, liquid-like movements. Their calls heightened Indra’s sense of isolation. This sort of business was messy, but necessary. Shame would cast a shadow on their family for years. They would lose money, respect. He knew it would be difficult for other people to understand. If this ever got into the newspapers, he would be called evil. Let us hope, he thought staring at the weapon in the boot of the car, that Baseema sees sense quickly, so I don’t have to use it.
Salam, on the long walk home from JJB Sports. Friday evening, people climbing aboard buses, cruising in cars that he can only dream of owning. There’s an air of anticipation for the weekend, something he lives for, a misplaced energy where maybe anything can happen, and the city is alive on it.
Women walk by, skirt material in obvious short supply, but he isn’t interested. He has plans with Baseema, has been saving up for three weeks to take her out to dinner. Pizza Express, as it happens, only the best. He must go home to change first. A new black shirt, new black trousers. He’ll be a Bollywood looker, that’s for sure.
Half an hour later he criss-crosses three alleyways, hears four different types of music from Reggae to Rock. Puddles float the spectrum-glitter of petrol. He checks his watch: plenty of time yet.
A sudden kick sees Salam fall forwards.
He grasps the metal railing of a fire escape for steadiness, turns, is confronted by an old man holding a gun.
‘Enough, Salam, lad,’ the man says. ‘Just don’t move a thing, no?’ Brown waistcoat, white shirt, a heck of a grey beard. His voice is uncertain. This is obviously no professional. ‘If you move I’ll shoot, okay?’
‘What?’ Salam says, eyeing all the time the barrel of the gun.
‘You have come close to Baseema too much, no. You have brought much shame.’
The alley is long. No escape route. When watching those horror movies, his friend Dave says that in real life that people know better than to interfere with a scene like this. No one will rescue him. It’s just him and the old man.
Shadows seem longer, darker than before.
‘I love her,’ Salam says.
‘Accha! How can someone so young know what love is, eh? You tell me?’
‘I know what it is. I love her. I want to look after her.’
‘Love is being able to pay for food, pay for a houses, a car. Well-being for children. That’s love. You youngsters think you know it all, isn’t it.’
‘No, that’s money you’re talking about,’ Salam says, a hint of daring in his voice, ‘not love.’
Sweating, Salam glances above, sees the shape of an eagle swooping between buildings, the same ghostly texture as the tiger from the other night. It is immense, the size of a car, and plummets just as quickly. Within seconds its claws penetrate the back of the man with the gun, the weapon firing into the ground, forcing Salam to jump several steps backwards. He has never considered the weapon could’ve been loaded.
A scream, and the man is lifted into the air, the draft from the wings scattering Coke cans and newspapers around the alleyway. Salam watches their faint shadow move across the sky until it is out of sight. For several minutes he sits on the fire escape, staring at the gun, on the edge of throwing up, realising that it’s because of the witch that he’s still alive.
The eagle returns, empty clawed. Salam doesn’t hear it, only notices its approach with the displacement of air. He wonders how and where the bird disposed of the attacker.
‘Enough of this,’ Salam says. ‘Enough hiding. Enough running. It’s sick, innit?’
The eagle stares blankly.
‘Let’s go to Baseema’s house. I wanna confront her father. You’re on my side. You with me?’
The eagle squawks something that could be a reply, leans forwards as if to beckon Salam onto its back.
Salam obliges, says, ‘Drive steady, all right?’
With another thick downdraft that sends a bottle skidding into the wall, they rise from between the buildings, at rooftop level then far beyond, providing Salam with a view of the city. Its call is loud enough to shatter glass. Slowly, from the other side of clouds, other white eagles follow. Wind ruffles his hair, threatens to pull him to the ground, but he feels bizarrely safe in this bird’s care. He feels liberated. No one can touch him. Down below a white tiger meanders through the traffic jams. Can people see them? Are they caused by my imagination? Does the witch charge for these things by the hour?
A few minutes later, Salam lands outside a detached Victorian house in Mapperley Park. Posh. A tiger bounds over the gate. Exotic birds spiral down from the sky. A door opens: a man in a blue shirt runs forward screaming, his arms waving as if he’s on fire. A white bear chases him, growling. The garden soon becomes a zoo for ghosts. Bears, rhinos, tigers, eagles, condors and things more bizarre, horses with arms, elephants with six trunks, they all gather in their powder-white glow, and tread a circle around the man who Salam notices is Baseema’s father.
Baseema runs out shouting. ‘What is going on? Salam? What’s this? What are you doing here?’
Salam says, ‘This is our doing. This is what the Chudail has done to help. We asked for it.’
A scream. Her father is on his back, a tiger standing on his chest. ‘Get off! Accha! I’m sorry. Help me. Help!’ He begins to sob, and prods tentatively at the tigers paws.
Salam approaches, calls back the ghosts. Waves his hand to pull them away. Baseema’s father gets up, a look on his face that suggests he is astounded Salam has the power to control the creatures. He rubs his eyes to regain some pride.
Salam struts like a cocky, urban Mowgli. ‘Mister, this is all because you wont let me and Baseema be together. I’ve got news for you. We’re protected. Every time you try to do something, they save me. They’re on my side. I reckon you should let us be. They’ll follow you everywhere. They’ll never let you win.’
‘And what if I do not? You think you can come into my garden and—’
Salam clicks his fingers and the tiger pounces, thumps Baseema’s father into the floor in a sliding arc of mud. The animal growls deeply. Whiskers brush his cheek.
‘Arey! All right! Just get it off.’ There’s something in the old man’s eyes to suggest he doesn’t accept this fully, something between confusion and fear.
Salam calls for all the creatures to back off, for the tiger to give some space.
‘If you hurt her,’ her father says, ‘I won’t let any creature stop me from getting you.’
‘You’ve been hurting her enough already, don’t you think? I’m the one she cries to every time you beat her, every time you stop her doing what she wants to. It’s her life. I’m the one who holds her softly, tells her it’s okay, innit. I’ll do anything to keep her happy. These animals are here to keep her happy.’
‘So you’ll get rid of this Anish dude?’ Salam says.
The tiger roars as if to back up the point.
Baseema’s father nods.
‘Come on, Bas, we’ve got dinner plans.’
She stares at her father, the look on her face indicating she’s too fearful to even move.
The tiger grunts a blast of air into his face.
‘Go, go,’ he says, waving his hand to her, unable to take his vision off the muscled creature pinning him to the ground.
She runs over to Salam, holds his hand, and the ghosts disappear one by one into the rhododendrons, with Baseema’s father rubbing the back of his head in disbelief at the scene. There are tiger tracks on his shirt. He stomps towards his house kicking plants along the way, cursing in both English and Hindi.
Baseema’s father sits sulking in his study, door locked, hundreds of old copies of car magazines scattered across the floor being the only evidence of his tantrum. He stares at a framed picture of Baseema, to the right of the miniature cricket back signed by none other than Sachin Tendulkar in a corporate box at the Oval. Both items take centre stage on his desk basking in the glow of the computer screen.
He seethes with anger. He looks out the window onto his back lawn. It is night time. The moon forces bold shadows across his lawn. He contemplates what had happened earlier. Could it be true that these animals are protecting his daughter’s interests? How is it possible? Why can a father not show love for his daughter any more?
An image of the Sikh boy, Salam, enters his mind. He reaches into his desk, moves to draw out a knife and his car keys. As soon as his fingers touch the blade, he hears a sudden noise from the back garden. Strangely, he senses it’s his own voice screaming, a twisted premonition that injects him with fear. He walks over to the window, shaking, to look out into the night. There, nestled in the blackness of the bushes, a faint glow. Two white eyes, staring back him. He pushes the window out, fractionally, the air chilling the room.
If you listen carefully you can hear a growl.
That weekend, Salam and Baseema return to the house of the Chudail to say a thank you. They find no one there, no trace of her existence. No answer at the door. No smells of spices, no drifts of incense. They peer through the window and can see nothing. The walls are bare.
On a mayo-stained computer in McDonalds, Baseema in the queue for two chicken burgers, large fries and a Coke, Salam hits Google, curious to find out a little more about the witch. You can find anything on the Internet these days, he thinks, even where the crazy old thing went, but there is no information. All he discovers is that in India she may have be murdered for knowing witchcraft, stoned to death, burned. It’s unlikely she’s gone there.
Baseema approaches with the scents of CK One and fried food. ‘I hope you’re not looking up pictures of Aishwarya Rai again.’ She feeds him a chip. ‘You have me to look at now, and there’s no one to stop you doing that.’
He grins as she pecks him on the cheek.
A promising Saturday opens up. A promising year.
Salam and Baseema by Mark Charan Newton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.