When the first breeze of the morning whistles over the green tips of the paddy-stalks to kiss the tawny jute thatching of the bungalow roof, Apa is already out on the verandah. It’s still dark but that doesn’t matter, it’s been more than twoscore years since she’s needed light to work by. All she needs is the jute and her tools. Needle and twine, knife and lime, all have their place and in Apa’s hands that place is to give form to thought. Beneath those hands the strands strain, first to oppose her coaxing, and then, bit by bit, to obey her bidding. Once or twice, a sharp fibre-edge pricks her finger and she silently shakes the droplets of blood aside with practiced ease, careful not to let any spill on the jute, even as the material in her grasp twists in apology.
Before the rosy arms of the sun reach out from the dark to embrace Midnapore in another new day, she’s already been at work for several hours. Her deft, callused fingers move quickly, expertly, back and forth, one fold up, another stitch down. As she works, she hums her shukro-sangeet, a song of thanks to the jute, for what it has been and what it will be. No matter how many times she works and weaves it, Apa never ceases to wonder at the miracle of this material, the most special, versatile crop there is. You can wear it, build with it, eat it and feed with it; there’s almost nothing in which you can’t use it. And it grows everywhere, Bengal’s ubiquitous treasure. Yet, despite what people say, jute has no magic, no mystery or secrets; what you ask of it is what it gives. Even if it does carry memories; each generation of crop remembering what its parents have done, so each fresh time you mould it, it proves easier than the last. All you need is enough of yourself to put into it, and the knowledge that both you and the jute are in this together, not master and dasa, but two friends working side by side.
By the time Nilesh comes out onto the verandah to stand behind her, the golden strands in her grasp have already begun to take the shape they will spend the rest of their existence in. A small hand reaches out, tapping her on the shoulder, and Apa turns, to be met by a pair of accusing black eyes.
“You said I could help!”
“I said if you finished your milk you could help.”
“But Grandma, I did!”
He holds out his hand, brandishing a tumbler, then overturns it. A solitary white drop clings to the rim, then falls free, landing on the verandah floor.
Apa laughs. “All right then. Sit down next to me, and go through all these jute bits I have dropped. I need you to find the two biggest ones and set them aside.”
He beams, plonking himself down beside her with a loud thud.
“Be careful! You’ll hurt yourself!”
He giggles but doesn’t answer, rummaging through the discarded scraps of jute, the pink tip of his tongue peeping out from the side of his mouth, brow scrunched up in concentration. Silence falls over the verandah for a while, punctuated only by Nilesh’s periodic exclamations and grunts. Apa pays them little heed: the jute demands all her attention. She sits there, head bent down, sunbeams dancing off her silvery hair, hands still flashing first one way, then another, as the fibres she holds in her fingers come together as only Apa can make them. And as she finishes, the final fibrous form resting in her lap, Nilesh leaps to his feet, handing her two pieces of jute.
“These were the biggest ones, Apa.”
“Thank you, Nilesh. Yes, these are exactly what I need.”
“What is it? What doll have you made today?”
She twists the scraps around the doll’s waist, using the very tip of the knife to shape them. Then a dab of lime to hold them in place.
Nilesh’s eyes widen. “It’s wearing a dhoti now! I made the dhoti!”
He claps delightedly, and then squeals as the doll claps along with him.
“It’s a hattali’r putul! A clapping doll!”
She smiles. “No, it’s a Nilesh Putul.”
“It’s me? It’s for me?”
She smiles again. “Yes and yes. Do you like it?”
He leans forward, planting a big, sloppy kiss on her weathered cheek, and then does a little dance, whooping excitedly. A slight frown creases her brow as she watches him; his eagerness for everything doll-related is a bittersweet reminder of what used to be. Where once it was common for children to gather gawking at her while she worked, or for villagers to stop by the house and ask her about taking on so-and-so as an apprentice, it’s now been years since anyone has. Today’s young people have other things they want to do with their lives, things that do not require them to spend decades hunched over with needle in hand, nor pay ever-increasing levies and taxes. Apa sighs. But then there’s Nilesh, always so eager to help her in her work. Perhaps he will be the exception, and when he’s old enough she’ll teach him the craft, and maybe the art of Midnapore dollweaving will outlive her after all.
He’s still dancing away happily even as the doll kicks its feet in perfect unison with his. Apa watches them both, her heart now sowing fields without a thought for the reaping.
Until the sound of hoofbeats rends the air, growing louder as the horse trots down the path towards the bungalow verandah. Now they see him, the uniformed Englishman sitting upright in the saddle. Apa keeps her eyes on him all the way, her new creation now held tightly in her hands.
“Nilesh. Go inside. Hurry, now.”
“But why, Apa?” he protests. “I want to hear what he says too!”
Apa half-turns, fixing the boy with her eye. “I said, now.”
He darts back inside, as anyone would have, because no one in Midnapore disobeys Apa. As the horse draws to a halt, the old woman rises to her feet.
The Englishman dismounts, flicks the sweat from his brow, and stands before the verandah.
“Matriarch of Midnapore. Captain Frederick Bolton, of the Calcutta Presidency Battalion.”
He sounds like most of his countrymen, flat-toned and steady. She often wonders how the English have come by their belief that the inability to emote is a virtue. It seems so unnatural.
“I remember you.”
She speaks in English, because it hurts her ears to hear them try to speak Bangla. Although more often than not, what they speak is Hindi in what they think is a Bengali accent.
“I come as the emissary of His Grace, Sir John Arthur Herbert, Governor of Bengal, Representative of Her Gracious Majesty Victoria, Queen of India and the Empire.”
“What do you want this time?”
He smiles. “Oh, you know what His Grace wishes for. He’s asked you for it on more than one occasion. One of your dolls for Her Ladyship. “
“I would urge you to reconsider.”
“There is nothing to reconsider. Your master is, as you say, Governor of Bengal. He can have almost any toy he wants.”
“What he wants is one of yours. His Grace says he has never seen another dollmaker whose work compares to yours. None of the others have your magic.”
“He might have seen many more of us if he hadn’t made it a point to drive so many out of work with duties and levies every time the wind changes and those schools where you tell our children how backward our ways are. And I have no magic. I am but a means to an end.”
“Come now, His Grace is willing to be generous.”
She gestures at the thick paddy and jute fields encircling the bungalow, green and lush, gently swaying in the summer breeze.
“Look around you, Captain. I have no need of his generosity.”
“I strongly recommend you do not choose this path. Your Governor is not a man used to being denied. Especially by a native. See, you even hold a doll as we speak. All you need to do is simply hand it to me, and you can name your price.”
“My putuls are not for sale. I give them to those whom I choose, and I do not choose those who demand them at the point of a bayonet. Be off with you.”
He sighs. “I fear you may come to regret this, Matriarch. ”
“All of Midnapore, nay, all of Bengal regrets the day your kind came here. What is one more regret? If you turn your horse around, you will find the path leads back just as surely as it led you here. I would urge you to take it.”
She could swear she sees his eyes blaze, but just as suddenly, the anger is gone and he’s taking a deep breath. Had she imagined it? When he speaks, his voice is even.
“I will convey your message to His Grace.”
With that, he leaps back on his horse and gallops away.
Apa stands erect, watching until man and horse are out of sight, vanished among the towering crops on either side of the road. He might be gone, but the dark cloud of his unspoken promise still lingers. An additional crease lines her already-wrinkled brow; she twists the jute doll in her hands.
For as she well knows, just like jute, the white man has a long memory, and unlike the jute, he does not mind the blood.
Under the relentless gaze of the sun, the scorched earth shimmers. Through the haze, the shriveled, blackened stumps of what had been the jute-field protrude upwards. From the verandah, Apa stares unblinkingly at them. As she watches, a charred wisp dances off one, carried by the breeze to fall in the burnt, dried-out remains of what had been one of the paddy plots. Next to it, a host of flies buzz above something lying there. A dead bullock, or, more likely, a person. The British have already taken all the bullocks, right after they took all the rice. Every last grain.
It’s been almost four days since she lost Nilesh. Mercifully, he’d stopped crying towards the end, so for the last couple of days he’d just lain there, hands over his bloated belly, eyes staring sightlessly at something in the distance that nobody else could see. For a brief, interminable while, she’d wondered what he’d felt during those final days, but she knows the answer now. Nothing.
Despite what Apa had always thought starvation would be like, the hunger isn’t even the worst part. The pangs don’t last as long as one would imagine; by the fourth day they’re almost entirely gone. It isn’t even the weakness, terrible as that is. No, it’s the lethargy, the constant feeling that nothing matters, not food, not movement, not brushing away the flies circling overhead and settling on one, unwilling to even afford one the dignity of being truly dead before they move in. It’s the sense of lying there, waiting to shut down, but being unable to do even that, as the mind refuses to accept what the body is telling it, that this journey has come to an end. Time comes and goes in strange, fluid stretches; a leaf taking hours to fall to the ground, the span between sunrise and sunset vanishing in the time it takes to blink. Blinking is the one thing that seems unchanged, as though her brain has a special rapport with the eyelids that it never developed with the rest of her body. What is strangest of all is thought itself. Her mind doesn’t seem foggy. Thoughts appear with what feels like increased clarity, even as she watches her body wasting away, as though her brain is cannibalising the rest of her to feed itself.
As if on cue, a fly buzzes around her head, coming to settle on her nose. She blinks to drive it off, but it ignores her efforts. It’s there to stay, welcome or not. Must be British. She thinks about brushing it away, but her limbs are heavy and belong to someone else, and it doesn’t seem that important anyway. She blinks again, and in the instant her eyes are shut, she hears a sound, no, a series of sounds, words, coming from very far away. She opens her eyes again on the other side of the blink, and the man comes into focus.
He’s in front of the verandah, still astride his horse, moving his mouth, making the sounds. He looks familiar. Can it be, yes, it is indeed him, the British soldier who keeps coming here unbidden, like one of those flies. What’s his name again? Bol, Ball, something like that. What does it matter? Behind him, also on horseback, three more men. They don’t matter either. Maybe if she shuts her eyes again they’ll go away.
She closes them, and then she feels hands, one pulling her head backwards, the other forcing her mouth open, tipping something into her mouth. A steady stream of something, thin, yet mushy. She chokes, deep racking retches, spluttering the food back out, looking up through watering eyes. Two of the men are crouched over her, one holding her, the other holding a spoon and a bowl of watery-looking rice gruel. Spoon Man is wiping the regurgitations off the unhappy expression on his face. He looks back at his companions. The familiar-looking soldier says something to his men. The feeder grimaces and she feels rough hands grab her head again, tilting it backwards, as the spoon closes in once again.
She sits on the verandah, cross-legged, ignoring the soldier beside her, waiting for the other one to come with the evening bowl of gruel. They no longer feed her now that she’s strong enough to do it for herself, but at least one of them hovers nearby at all times. At first she’s unable to keep any food down, as though her stomach now considers rice a foreign object it wants nothing to do with, but they persist, and slowly, her body has learnt how to eat again. She still doesn’t know why: they haven’t said a word to her since. They do, however, talk to each other. From listening, she learns that one is called Willis, the other McKissic, that someone called Sir Winston has ordered the governor to take all the rice, and it is happening all over Bengal.
Every so often, slowly, gingerly, she runs her tongue along the inside of her gums, wincing a bit. Her teeth and mouth hurt all the time now, why she doesn’t know. From the force-feeding? Or maybe that’s merely the part of her that was being eaten from the inside out when the soldiers returned to the bungalow.
The sun is lower than usual when McKissic returns with the gruel, and this time he isn’t alone. Four more mounted soldiers accompany him, and riding at their head is that captain again. With an effort, Apa recalls his name. Bolton. He reins in his horse, dismounts, and stands before the verandah, riding crop still in one hand. He jerks his head at one of the other men. This individual crouches down over Apa and proceeds to hold her wrist, then touch her neck, look in her mouth, and run a hand over her still-distended belly as she sits there silently. Finally, he stands up.
“She’ll be fine.”
“Strong enough for the job?”
“I’d venture to say so, yes.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Doctor.” Bolton looks at Apa. “I told you no good would come of your defiance. It’s a good thing I got here in time, isn’t it?”
He smiles at her, waiting for a response, while she stares back at him, stony-faced. For a slow, long time, silence spreads its wings over the verandah. Until eventually, the captain cracks.
“His Grace is, however, still willing to be generous. He offers you a bargain. Food for you and whatever others are yet alive here.”
Others, he says. How long has it been now since Agni took her Nilesh? She isn’t even sure any more. All she remembers is how small, how frail he’d looked on the pyre. How hard it had been just to force the doll she’d made for him into his tiny, stiff hands before she’d lit the flame. Fire had been his protector, doing what she no longer has the strength to. It had made sure that nobody would attempt to strip the corpse of its clothes, as she heard has been happening all over Midnapore. Clothes are fibre and fibre can be food. She’s also heard news of even worse horrors: children attempting to eat their deceased parents, parents their dead children. And even worse, whispers that, in some places, there are those who aren’t even waiting for others to die. Then, silence, no news of anything for days before she too had fallen into the starvation-stupor. That had been the one good thing about it, the inability to think of Nilesh, all the others she’ll never see again, about any of it.
Despite her best efforts, the tear burns its way out, dangling on the rim of her eye for a moment, before it falls to the dusty verandah floor with a loud plop. She looks up at his hateful face.
“There are no others here.”
“What a pity.”
Her face must be showing some of what she’s thinking, because he immediately goes on.
“Look, don’t blame me for this. I’m just doing my job here.”
“Just … doing your job.”
“Yes and what’s more, I’m trying to help you here. As is the Governor. We’re on your side, you know. Think about it. Food and drink for you, and in return, all His Grace asks is that you give him something in return. A doll for her Ladyship.”
She feels a stirring within her, a white-hot core of rage in her belly, growing, spreading outwards.
“He did all this … for a doll?”
At this, he laughs aloud. “You know, sometimes you natives really are full of yourselves. No, the Denial of Rice Policy is so much bigger than you, or this state. It’s been a huge help to supplying the war effort. Ever heard of the Axis? No, of course you haven’t. Be glad—that’s who we’re protecting you from.”
“Yes, protecting. The Prime Minister himself has written to Sir John, commending him for his success in ensuring continued food and supplies for the Allied troops. Instead of complaining, you should be proud of the role Bengal is playing in saving the world. As is the rest of India. Anyway, enough of this. I didn’t come all the way out here to the boondocks to discuss global politics with you. Won’t you just see reason, for your own sake? Just make that damned doll and we can all be done with this song and dance. Here, McKissic, give her some more of that stuff. Maybe the taste of food will straighten her mind out.”
She feels rather than sees the bowl being thrust into her hands. All she can hear is what he’s said, echoing in her head, over and over. Once again, the white-hot rage surges through her, going from kernel to spreading flame so quickly that she scarcely remembers how it began. She raises her hand, to throw the bowl of gruel back in his face, and as she does, one particular sentence bounces around inside her mind again.
“… the rest of India.”
Then the rage is gone, replaced by something else, harder, colder, so alien and frightening, so different from any feeling she’s ever known that it couldn’t possibly have come from her. But it’s inside her.
She lowers the bowl. “I need materials, and tools.”
He nods, pleased, although there’s something else there as well. Relief? “I thought you might see the light. I have jute here. What tools?”
“Lime, a needle, some thread, and a knife. Her eyes are blue?”
He stares at her. “What if they are?
“Then I will also need some indigo. For the dye.”
“You shall have whatever you need.”
Then he pauses. “You’ll have to be supervised, of course. Can’t have you using that knife to do some mischief to someone. Or yourself. Willis, McKissic, I’m afraid your vigil continues. Give her everything she wants. At least until—how long before it’s done, now?”
“I don’t know. Two days, maybe three. It is not an exact science. I need to feel the shape in the jute before I can set it free.”
“You lot and your mumbo-jumbo, I tell you. No matter. You want three days, you’ll have them. But before I go, I’d like you to understand …”
He leans forward, grabbing her shoulder so powerfully she cries out. His face is inches from her own, so close she can feel his warm, moist breath when he speaks. His voice is a whisper, harsh and chilling, travelling right through her.
“When I come back three days from now, I expect to find Her Ladyship’s doll. Do not disappoint me, old woman.”
He steps back, smiling. “Three days,” he says again.
With that, he leaps back up into the saddle, and rides away, leaving behind Apa and the two soldiers on the verandah.
Apa takes a deep breath, raises the bowl to her lips with shaking hands, and slurps up the thin, flavourless gruel. She’s going to need all her strength for what is to come.
Needle, twine, knife, and lime. One fold up, one stitch down. She’d forgotten how good it feels to weave, to just be holding the jute once more, an old, lost friend, now returned home.
“I missed you,” she whispers, head bent down. From sunrise to sunset she sits cross-legged on the verandah, working, only ever stopping for food and ablutions. When she needs a break, she looks at the banyan tree. With the fields all gone, she can see further from the verandah than ever before, all the way to the tree. It used to be the sabha sthal, where the villagers congregated for Panchayat meetings under the broad, dangling roots. Now it’s something else entirely. Vultures peck at the swaying bodies hanging from its boughs, rats scurry around its base, gnawing at the bodies on the ground underneath it. It had started out as a place of punishment, where the British hung farmers who dared to hide rice from them. Then villagers took to hanging themselves there as well; the rope is more painless than the slow, pitiless grip of starvation. Parents hung their children, and then themselves; it was just easier that way. That was when the British burnt the jute fields, to ensure no one could make any rope. Or maybe they just enjoyed watching their victims die slowly. So people have taken to cutting down the bodies and reusing the rope. There are now almost as many corpses on the tree as leaves below it. Apa looks often at the tree these past few days.
Only once does she feel herself waver. It happens in the middle of an afternoon, when the sun is at its fiercest. Like an intangible East India Company, the thought creeps into her mind, and having inveigled its way in, it refuses to leave. She glances at Willis, whose turn it is to watch her; he’s over on the other side of the verandah, cleaning his rifle. Her eyes inch to the knife lying beside her. It would be so easy to end the misery now. One quick stroke across the throat and there will be no more pain, no more of that aching, hollow feeling where her heart had been, no more anything. Slowly, her hand closes around the hilt. And then she hears it again, that awful, mocking sound, Bolton laughing at her, at Nilesh, at Bengal, and at India. And just like that, her jaw sets, her shoulders straighten, and the thought is vanished, banished away to a dark corner of her mind, wherefrom it won’t find its way back again. No, she won’t give them the satisfaction. Not while there is work to do. So work she does.
Needle and twine, knife and lime. Hands flashing, jute bending, straining, obeying her, as it always had. Dawn to dusk she weaves, reaching within to put of herself into the jute, letting her feelings and memories flow. But all she can remember is the sound of that laughter, the peals of merriment that had convinced her not to succumb, because that would be the worst way to die, to the sound of your murderer’s laughter. And all she can find of herself is that ever-growing, cold, frightening feeling that frightens her no longer, because it is not just inside her, now it is her. And all she feels, she puts into the doll.
When she pricks her finger, she no longer shakes the blood aside, but lets it drip slowly, deliberately into the jute, till it is all soaked up.
And still she hears that laughter, reverberating between her ears, bouncing around the inside of her skull, a dirge that just won’t stop. And neither will she, not until it is finished.
One stitch up, one fold down.
True to his word, Bolton returns on the morning of the fourth day, just as she finishes the last of her gruel.
“Is it finished?” he calls out, even before he makes it all the way to the verandah where she sits.
She holds it up by the hair, a slim, European woman in a blue dress, with golden jute-hair and indigo eyes, swaying gently in her grasp.
“It is the finest work I have ever done.”
“Good, good,” he replies, reaching out for it.
Apa ignores his outstretched hand.
“It’s a Hashi’r Putul, you know.”
“A laughing doll. “
“It doesn’t look like it’s laughing.”
“That’s not what it means. When you press it the right way, it will laugh.”
He frowns. “You mean laugh out loud?”
She shakes her head. “That’s not how it works. It will laugh, but only for the one it’s meant for, and only if you know how to make it. And there is none but me who can handle it, or teach anyone how to.”
“And you said you didn’t do magic.”
“An artist never tells all her secrets.”
“And yet you told me this one. I’ll take that doll now.”
“No, I want to give it to Lord Herbert myself.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen, is it? The doll, please.”
“I just told you, only I can make it work.”
He narrows his eyes. “The trouble with this whole thing, old woman, is that I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t believe I can make a laughing doll?” She sits up very straight, pulling the tatters of her sari tightly about herself. “You have insulted my art, Captain.” Her free hand snakes down, over the hilt of the knife. “Perhaps I should just destroy it.”
“Or perhaps I should just have my men run you through and take the doll from your corpse.”
“They cannot do so before I destroy the putul. You said so yourself, your master truly wants it for his wife. Will you go and tell him that he could have had it, but you were so intent on not letting a craftswoman exhibit her craft that all he shall get today is some jute scraps? So be it.”
There is a long, heavy silence. Sensing her moment, Apa presses on.
“On the other hand, if you do take me with you, I can teach others to make them as well. Think how pleased your governor will be. As many of my putuls as he wants, for whoever he wants, whenever he wants.”
Another silence, during which Bolton frowns. Then he chuckles.
“Well played, old woman. Very well, you shall come back to Government House with us. Put her up on your horse behind you, Willis. Oh, and make sure you take away her knife first. Wouldn’t want her to plant one between your ribs from behind now, would you?”
“Thank you, Captain,” says Apa, handing her knife over. “Oh, one moment.”
She reaches down, quickly picking through the discarded scraps of jute, until she’s found the two biggest. As she does, she remembers Nilesh, sitting on almost that very spot, handing her two scraps just like these, and a pang twists her innards. No, she cannot cry, not now. Not yet. She blinks, forcing back the tears, and lifts her head to look up at Captain Bolton.
“A keepsake. To remind me of the best work I ever did.”
He shrugs. “Are you ready, Willis? Come along then, we must be off. It’ll take us the better part of the day to get back to Calcutta.”
The road to Kolkata is long and dusty, and every step of it is steeped in a thousand terrors. Field after field lies black and arid, within them rows of immolated crops and ashen cadavers bearing witness to the charnel house that is Bengal now. Bodies lie piled twenty high by the roadside, each gust of wind carrying with it the stench of rotting flesh and dead hope. As they ride past the banks of the Hooghly, lifeline of Kolkata, Apa sees the sunbeams bearing down, setting off a shimmer on the sparse patches of water still visible between the bodies. There are a lot more corpses than water, at least on the surface. A carrion-bird settles down on the back of one unsteadily, her talons sinking down into the flesh of the man’s back, but not very far, for even the water-rot does only so much to soften rigor mortis. Apa turns her head aside and retches, and she isn’t the only one in the party doing so.
All the way, the soldiers talk, never to her, but from what she hears, she gathers more than a bit. For instance, that the Denial of Rice policy has been declared a complete success, even though food supplies from various places she’s never heard of have been turned away or redirected to British troops to ensure it stays that way. That it goes even beyond that, there is also a Denial of Boat Policy, also suggested by London, that has to do with far more than boats—almost all forms of transportation have been burnt or seized. That there are whispers among the men that the scale of the holocaust has moved even some British hearts, but not Sir Winston’s: that Dark Lord is instead mightily pleased.
Indeed, by the time they pull up at the gates of Government House on the banks of the Hooghly, Apa has seen and heard more horrors than she could tell of in yet another lifetime, or recall any more of in this one. Until at long, merciful last, they stand within the high stone walls, where perfectly manicured lawns and picturesque blossoms neatly encircle engraved fountains, and the sweet smells of jasmine and rose fill the air. Rows of trees—neem, teak, peepal, and sal—stand looking down on them, forming a green canopy over their heads as they make their way down the winding, cobbled path to the marble steps of the main building. From somewhere up in the leaves, a koel titters.
And then they are inside the building, where Apa stands between armed guards, clutching the doll tightly in one hand, while the Captain announces their arrival to the butler, a plump, obviously Bengali man who looks Apa up and down condescendingly and then addresses himself to the Captain.
“His Lordship and her Ladyship are entertaining dinner guests tonight. But I shall convey news of your arrival.”
“Please do,” says Captain Bolton, stepping forward. “And if you would, add this message.” He mutters something in the butler’s ear, and the man blinks, looks at Apa once again, and then nods and walks ponderously away.
It is a while before he returns. “His Grace has given instructions for you to wait. When they have supped, you shall be summoned to the Reception Room. It appears His Grace’s guests are curious to see this toy as well.”
Another interminable wait, and then a liveried footman appears, asking that they follow him. They do so, under dangling chandeliers and past the portraits and busts of governors gone by, and walls covered with thick, woven tapestries, tiger skins, and mounted bison heads. One soldier marches behind her, the Captain in front, as Apa scurries to keep up, reaching into the folds of her sari for the jute scraps she’d saved. They make their way up the broad, carpeted spiral marble staircase, and into a large hall, filled with shiny ornaments, more sculptures, and several large stuffed tigers standing on wooden platforms. A massive chandelier dangles from the ceiling. There are about a dozen people in the room, men and women dressed in European finery, some holding wineglasses.
“Ah, Bolton,” says one, a tall, thin man with a receding hairline and a long, delicate nose.
“My Lord,” says Captain Bolton, snapping to attention with a salute.
“You have it?”
“Indeed, sir. Well, she does.” He gestures towards Apa.
“Ah, yes, of course. Nigel told me of your planned performance. We are all most eager to see it, are we not?”
“Indeed we are,” says a woman, stately and fair-haired, coming to stand beside him. “Where is it, John?”
“The woman has it, my dear. Well? Where is her Ladyship’s present?”
Apa feels Bolton nudge her and she steps forward, holding up the putul. A murmur runs through the gathering.
“Ah, excellent! Very satisfactory indeed!” exclaims the Governor.
He turns to one of the others, a man with bushy side-whiskers that Apa notices still have some breadcrumbs trapped in them. “Here, take a gander at this, Hadley. I told you, these natives do some mighty fine work. Not a lot they’re good at, but spices and trinkets, they jolly well know their way about those. And it laughs, you say, Bolton?”
“That’s what she claimed, sir,” replies the Captain.
“Capital, capital. You’ve done a commendable job, Bolton. Commendable, I say.”
“Thank you very much, sir.”
“I am anxious to see this,” says Lady Herbert. “I have been quite charmed since you told me of it. A doll that laughs on its own. Imagine that! It sounds rather too good to be true!”
“Indeed,” says the Governor. “Well, what are we waiting for? Show us!”
Apa nods and holds up the hashi’r putul again, as they crowd around her. She runs her hands over her face, sliding past her cheeks and down her ears and the sides of her neck. Now she smiles and folds her hands together under her chin in a formal nomoshkar, making sure to meet each of their eyes in turn.
Then she takes a deep breath, filling her lungs, throws her head back, and as loudly as she can, she laughs.
And as she does, a high, shrill cackle bursts forth from the putul.
“Well,” says Governor Herbert, looking startled. “That’s not very nice, is it? I’m rather disappointed. Stop it now, I’m really not happy with—”
He breaks off, snickers, and then does so again, until it is a steady chuckle. And now his Lordship is laughing, the sort of laughter that comes straight from the gut, strong and insistent, louder and louder until he’s doubled up, roaring in full-throated merriment. Beside Apa, Captain Bolton is leaning against a chair, tears streaming down his cheeks as he laughs. Around him, the others are laughing too, different tenors and pitches, but all laughing as loudly as they can, breaking off only to cough or splutter before they go back to shrieking in mirth. They’re on the ground now, all of them, still laughing, spittle flying everywhere. Neck muscles knot, veins bulge, first in foreheads, and then everywhere else across their pale, now-sallow skin. Some are trying to shield their ears, but to no avail, the laughter keeps spilling out of them, bursting forth, as juice from the overripe mango fallen from the tree. And loudest of all, rising above the cacophony of their cumulative cachinnations, is the cackling tone of the putul, as it forces them, one by one, to match its tempo, faster and faster.
“I hope you are all enjoying yourselves,” Apa says in Bangla.
They don’t understand her, and yet they do; she can see the terror in their eyes now, faces contorting in horror as they realise what is happening and how utterly powerless they are to do anything about it. Anything but look at her with supplication in those very eyes, as she smiles back at each of them in turn. As Apa watches, a crimson stain slowly spreads out across the carpet; one of them has hit his or her head. Another has stopped laughing, Hadley, his eyes now staring sightlessly up at the chandelier. One down. Everyone else to go.
Apa takes a step back, then another, as the Governor hauls himself to his knees, hands clasping at his chest, still laughing, gasping, straining to speak, so Apa has to read his lips.
“Make—stop!” he chokes out between roars of mirth. “Please!”
Apa shakes her head and turns away, walking towards the door, stepping over the convulsing figure of the butler on the ground.
“Help me, sister!” he mouths in Bangla.
She steps over him. Traitor. He deserves to die with the rest of them.
At the door, she turns back, looking at Bolton, who has both hands to his throat, trying to choke back the peals. A steady stream of blood trickles out of his nostrils; more of it is welling up in his eyes, those eyes that are looking straight at Apa. She looks right back into them, and still holding his gaze, she nods. He raises a shaking, accusing finger at her, and then falls back on the ground, racked with laughter, blood now pouring out of his mouth as well.
She walks back out into the hallway, making her way back towards the staircase. She reaches into her ears, making sure the jute plugs are still firmly in place. Then she turns around to look back down the hallway, just in time to see a host of armed soldiers rush into the room she’s exited. She waits, a minute, five, ten. None of them come back out. She walks back to the room, and peers in; there are now about twenty of them on the floor, although only the new soldiers are moving, laughing. There’s a lot more blood in the room than there had been a while ago.
Slowly, Apa makes her way down the staircase, and out through the front door. Here she sits down, on the large marble steps, leaning back against them, drawing in another deep breath, filling her lungs with the sweet, heady scent of jasmine and gulmohar. This is as good a place as any. Carefully, deliberately, she pulls the earplugs out, tossing them down.
“Thank you, old friend,” she says, watching the jute leave as it flaps away on the breeze. Her partner that has just completed its final task—to protect her from her greatest creation.
Her Hatya’r Putul has done its work well. She turns her head, glancing back up at the building. Somewhere up there it’s still working, cackling ever louder and faster, until there will be nothing left in that room but flesh waiting to rot.
Sooner or later one of the British will realise this and not venture into that room. Then they’ll come looking for her. And she is ready, she’s been ready ever since Nilesh left, taken from her by a man in London none of them will ever meet.
“I’ll see you again soon,” she whispers into the wind.
And Apa begins to laugh.