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“Secrets of the Kath” © 2021 by Juliana Pinho

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Splinters, old and new. How else can the skin remember the tree? If it hurts, that is the point. When the earth speaks of how we haunt it, it is urgent and unforgettable.

His donkeys pull the carts, and upon them are the boxes. Within them is a stage in pieces awaiting their season like seeds. His costume he always wears and it stretches across his shoulders that match the scarred hillocks he travels up and down. He has no script for when he performs but his words uproot us like trees, sanding us down.

When all else fails, there’s the axe.

His lips move as the story brushes against him. The unblinking putli with their smooth bodies of what we call kath in the village. Kath of cedar and timber, neem and teak, and wood that has no name, all crouch inside their unseen cases, and the donkeys’ ears twitch to their soundless ancient ballads.

Deep in the belly of Sindh, the putliwallah always finds us. From hamlet to village to travelling city, he knows all the elders, and children too. Even you, Mithu. Even now as you go about your life in Massachusetts, halfway across the world is a family who knows your name and even your wife’s, and how you fit in the genealogy. The putliwallah knows the lineages, and he makes the puppets. He whittles them out of secrets and stories. They move with strings and sorceries.

Despite all they know, the putliwallah’s speechless troupe never cease their smiling.

The village square is always hot and blank of people this time of the day. A newspaper left out in the sun with all the words bleached off. But not today, Mithu, not in this memory of so many years ago. Today there are canopies, beneath which are charpais, and these all are facing the stage. It is the season. Everyone celebrates. We do this every year.

I am first out of the jeep, because I have been to some of these. Though not you. You are here thanks to your grandmother, who is fed up with how alien her son’s son is to her world. Your father breaks her heart with his wealth and the modern cocoon he has you incubated in.

I don’t sit on the charpai but hover, waiting. I don’t dare to sit on one of those square hard platforms your father would scowl if he saw me sitting on. In the city, he would say, there are no charpais, and people sit instead on chairs without hunching, and is he not wealthier than any city goat in a business suit? He is the Patel, the headman, and much more I cannot comprehend.

You get out of the jeep and run away from us, Ayah at your heels. I watch how quickly you leave us, the soles of your branded trainers gleaming clean where they are scrubbed daily. A donkey stands on its hind legs, genitals swinging, in a heroic attempt to eat a plastic bag hanging above us. He never reaches it.

I talk to your grandmother as we sit in front of the stage, and absorb the stares of the women around me. On my hands are rubies—your father likes to have me wear them around the village. I am a brochure for his social status.

I cover my head with a maroon shawl from Armani, but I have not brought any of my expensive handbags with me. I hope your father doesn’t notice, for it is the sort of thing that makes him cross. But I have decided, today, to be free of gleaming leather imported from miles away to a village full of tanners and horses and cows.

The boys, your class fellows, look at you, just as their mothers are looking at me. Their faces are hardened. Knowing. They seem older than you but I know you were all born the same year. Them in their houses in their parents’ beds. You in the hospital in the nearest city. You strut towards them, copying your father, and they bow towards you, moving their sandalled feet to make way. That deferential twisting of the body at one’s superiors that transcends cultures and eras and species. I see the corners of their mouths lift in the beginnings of a sneer, and I quickly look away lest I realise something.

The curtain goes up. The stage lies bare. Expectant. The whole of the village leans forward, peering.

You turn to see where your father sits. He is close to the stage, carefully canopied to avoid the blazing sun. The Pir is also present. The holy man is often at our house. Sometimes he prays in our mansion’s courtyard, and they say he is spreading his barakah, his holiness, onto the soil where the foundation of our family house stands. He otherwise lives at his dargah, a white plaster shrine where a saint lies buried. Or so the sign says.

A putli falls from above. Before its wood crashes on the stage, it springs up. Swirls once. Twice. Bows. Wiggles its hips. A drum starts to beat.

We applaud, and the boys whistle. The show has now begun.

Its oak brown delight washes over us. The schoolgirls laugh out loud, and the smell of solvents casts a spell such that the elders forget to chide them. Naghma isn’t there, among the lines of girls. This disappoints me because it has been a while since I have seen her.

I see her mother around the village. She looks wary of me, looking away when I try to get her attention, but then they are all nervous of me, these mothers of my schoolgirls. Their daughters though, they would always be so pleased when I visited the school. Your father had funded the enterprise, and it was my pleasure to keep up with it.

I liked all the girls, fussing over them and receiving their handmade cards. They were too young to know to be jealous of a rich woman. And I think I liked Naghma the most for having all the fight I did not have at her age. I was married to your father when I was only a little older than her. You may think you know all about him, but only the sugarcane knows the colour inside of the guthri it is wrapped in.

I remember once walking past and seeing Naghma place a packet of crisps on the ground. Then running at it and leaping with her shoe, exploding the air out of it with a gunshot bang that rang out in the air, reminding me of the guns shooting in celebration at weddings.

A man—the narrator—comes up on the stage, or at least we hear his footsteps. He gives voice to the putli. Asking questions. How are we all? How have we been blessed lately?

You sit as far away from your Ayah as you dare. Your grandmother had told you a little of what to expect. Today, she had said, you could see the putliwallahs perform. What is a putliwallah? you asked. He is a man, she told you, closer to the trees than we are to each other. Who makes dolls come to life with his magic. An ancient magic, passed down from one generation to the next. They identify the right kath, the correct kind of wood. The kind that sings a special something. His family, all together, cut it, measure it, sand it, and paint it.

Dolls? You almost spat. You had only heard the one word. Dolls?

It is not your fault. You have seen, on the TV in your bedroom, talking robots and laser guns. Alien invasions and dinosaurs. Halloween specials and superhero movies.

You have not seen a kathputli.

But your mouth hangs open.

For now, the stories have begun in earnest. Here is the snake charmer, the snake waving and darting about after him on stage, not charmed at all but very cross indeed. Hilariously so. It bites the snake charmer, who shrieks a comic wail and keels over. I remember how it goes. He dies and the snake is so sorry that after lamenting and sobbing, he revives him with magic.

Your grandmother chuckles at your awe. Especially when the dancing girl comes out on stage.

You look at her in scorn at first. I can sympathise. It is a foolish thing. The puppet’s expression is flat and the skirt it wears flares out excessively. The eyes are two blobs of white paint, thin black ovals in their middles. It stands limp. Then the drummer starts his steady rhythm, and the puppet’s head jerks up. She watches us watching her, alert and entranced. She sings along with the drums in a howling, wordless whistle. No longer ridiculous, but urgent. Sensuous. Her skirts whirl and her arms fly above her head. Exuding feminine energy. Exalts in it, hand on a jointed hip.

There is the hero, Amir Singh Rathore. The narrator says that his father’s father’s father … and many fathers back, the puppet master’s family served him. Which is why only these putliwallahs are the ones who know the true happenings of his epic. All other stories are impersonations!

We believe the narrator. We hoot at the hero’s exploits. We clap until the sweat sticks our shirts to our backs.

Here is the dancer again. Her name is Anarkali. There is always an Anarkali in real life as well, the narrator says. A girl, a beloved, whose heart finally blossoms to the relentless sun, and then, just as surely, is killed. But right now the dancing girl twists and spins, until everyone is tapping their foot and swaying and hooting to the wiles of this wooden semblance of a human. Someone shouts in the audience that she has winked at him, and he only sounds half-joking. Then the music stops, and the whistling puppet voices subside. The curtain draws shut.

This, Mithu, is where it all goes wrong. It has never gone wrong before.

Was it true what the narrator then went on to say? I know a thing or two, now, about being owned by a story. Perhaps I too would go to lengths to release myself from it. Inflict it on anyone, everyone, to rid myself of the haunting.

There are sharp electric lights behind the putliwallah on the stage. The dark circles beneath his eyes flare in them, pools of purple fire. It is nearly Maghrib. I see a lizard running across the open space, relishing the coolness. Mosquitoes form reverent clouds, hanging on to our presence.

For centuries, the narrator says, we have been putliwallahs. And all of you, wherever we go, you clap and you think to yourselves, what a story! Yes, indeed! What stories! But a true story is too lofty to be in our hands. It is something the earth whispers to us. It grows into the kath, the wood itself guarding these secrets. Trapping them in the lines that tell you their age, recording them. Releasing them to us. It is a curse, this binding of our souls to the injustices the earth is witness to.

And now, he goes on, here is one especially for the Patel.

I cannot see your father’s face. The gloom hangs heavy on us.

A small puppet. A girl made of twigs. A school bag neatly stitched from jute. She is about to open a door and leave the house, when two bigger puppets appear. At first the audience laughs. One looks to be a man with an oversized mustache. The other is a dismal-faced woman, who now slaps her own face. The man steps forward and knocks the schoolbag out of the girl’s hand.

A kazoo sound of surprise. A mournful whistle.

The girl walks around in a circle as the parents harangue her in short, whistling bursts, wounded balloons deflated by dishonour.

What has happened to her, they whistle. They bleat and they pipe. In every movement of their dance, my heart suffocates. It is a spell they are casting upon themselves. An enchantment of hostility and ill-will.

She is wilful and possessed, they wail, and none of the women of the family have been like this before. The rest of the family joins them, shaking their heads to an ominous drumbeat I had not even realised had started. She needs the saint, one says, and not these godless books. Where is our Pir?

A puppet with a pagri and prayer beads, back bent—oh, how skilled are these kathputli masters! Pointed white beard and simple white kameez too. A true man of the shrine.

He sits with his friend. A large puppet to represent a large man. His stomach is fat and on an arm sits a gold wristwatch, life-sized and gigantic. How funny, I think, your father’s wristwatch disappeared recently and we have no idea where it has gone.

We laugh as the large puppet makes his pompous way through the village so like ours. He reaches his house where he lives with a wife and son. It is the most magnificent house in the village. He stares at me with painted eyes, overly familiar.

The disobedient girl’s parents bring her, whistling in their shrill way. My head hurts and so does my heart. They leave her with the holy puppet who sits in the fat puppet’s mansion. So much glee does the family show as they go. How good for our daughter to be prayed over. For the jinn to be exorcised.

The last thing they show of the house is the drink. It is given to her, and none of us make a sound as she drinks it. It must be a calming drink because she goes to sleep, plait falling over her face.

The curtain drops. The fat man and the man of God deal with the wildness of the child in privacy.

It is properly Maghrib now. Soon the call to prayer will cut through this, a merciful end to whatever this is. My throat is dry. I look away and in my line of sight is the row of trees and the charpai and the Pir who sits on it. The Pir is laughing and looking from side to side, white beard catching the electric light. Looking as though he hopes others find the story funny too.

I turn my head to see you frowning and looking at the boys in your row as if you want to ask them something. They are not looking at you. Or at anyone. Their heads are hanging, embarrassed, bowed to the ground, as if someone had said something that was not supposed to be said out loud.

Well, says the narrator. Would you like to know what happened to her?

The puppets whistle back. Something sticks in my throat.

What makes me glance at Naghma's mother? She is leaning away, stiff in disgust, as if someone had shown her the open belly of a carcass.

But wait, the narrator continues. Look for yourselves.

The scene changes on the stage and a building materialises. Unfolding, pulled up by strings unseen. It is a dargah, much like the saint’s shrine in the village. The girl is at the shrine, on the green hills near it. It is unmistakably her, though she has hacked off her plait, and she raises her hands and whistles.

The stage shakes. Just like the earthquake we’d had the month before.

The ground cracks open. Out comes another puppet. A woman, face covered in light. I can see this doll has no face, but a mirror where a face should be. The lanterns are shining straight on it. She twitches, and is transformed into a being of uncontrived light.

And here is another story, nestled inside the story, the narrator says. The girl—the poor schoolgirl—she shrieks in complaint. She cries. She beats her chest. The woman puppet, limbs no longer limp, suddenly embraces her. The stage rumbles as the earth prepares to swallow them both. They vanish within the safety of the womb of the ground. And out of the ground grows a young tree. Its green arms spread, arranging itself on top of them.

The lanterns of the stage turn off.

The narrator looks as surprised as us all.

These kathputli, he says. Sometimes they know the story before even we do.

The drum beats a final farewell.

Nonsensical things, the Pir says as he leaves. He looks towards your father, but he is sitting with his head averted from the stage, reaching into his wallet and handing out money to people. It is what he most commonly does when he’s out and about in the village. His limbs jerk and I imagine strings pulling at them against his will.

And these puppets, made of new wood? The narrator continues, almost off the stage. Trees felled in the earthquake, eyewitnesses to the tale. But know we did not touch the new tree. Never.

Now! Who will do it? asks the narrator. Who will be the next hero of our age? Come up on stage and take revenge for what they did to the girl!

He holds out the puppet with the mustache. It is after all, he continues, only a wooden puppet. Anyone?

Your father stands up, but only because it is time to go home, you see.

When he is on the phone later that night, I hear phrases waft.

“Humiliating … public … how dare he … family compensated …”

When at night a hesitant you knocks on my door, I am so pleased. I do not think it is because your grandmother is asleep, or because your Ayah has gone home for a few days. My heart swells with pride. I know what they say about me. That because you had been cut from my womb in the hospital—operation, not a natural birth—and because I had let my breast milk dry up, I am not a proper mother. Not like the mothers in the village, with their babies bound to their backs, growing emaciated as they suckle, relentless, at malnourished breasts. I know they say you are a child plucked from me like fruit, and dropped into someone else’s lap. Even a cat gives more of herself in the birthing of her litters. I know they say this. I am also from this village.

I seat you next to me and hear you out. You say you are worried because you visited the shrine the other day, when the jeep had a burst tyre just opposite a strange, wilderly tree of cosmic green, and you took a walk around it as the driver changed the tyre. And you found what you say is a plait wrapped around a branch. A common schoolgirl’s plait. Just like the girl had lost in the play.

I do not understand then. I think it is just a relic, someone has been playing with horse tails or goat hair. Disgusting, really. No, you insist. It had a scrunchie at the end.

I mull on this. Then I think—you do not know girls. You have no sisters. What do you know what a plait is like? I give you a glass of buffalo milk—with my own hands. I fuss over the cleaning of the glass before pouring it out. I am too absorbed to hear you, too enraptured by the physicality of my role. It gives me a break from thinking on today’s events. At the end of the day we lose ourselves around the fire at the cave’s mouth. We no longer wish to make sense of things.

But later that night I am overcome by thoughts. Your father has left, abruptly, about some pressing issue.

So I go to your room. I see you holding a lumpy bag in your sleep. I open it and inside are the two puppets. You must have stolen them as we were leaving. Or did the putliwallah give them to you?

Holy man and fat man stare past me. Right through me.

What happens next?

You tell me. You were not asleep after all, but followed me as I went outside onto the terrace.

I should have told you, haina? You had been secluded in your young life from the rest of us. Not even your bare feet knew the feel of the earth like we did, we who grew up outside of the grasp of wealth. You, who were disinherited of the land, and did not know the stories I knew.

How could you have known what they said about the shrine? That the land was holy, yes, but that there was no saint buried there at all? That there had been a woman whose running feet brought her to the grove of trees on the hill, centuries ago? That she fell to her knees and directed her energies in a prayer, and the earth gave ear to her, ripping itself apart to receive her in its caverns. Leaving her pursuers stupefied. And that the shrine had been built all those centuries ago for her who influenced the soil and the wood, the river beds and the clouds? And it was not for any man—that false story came later. No, it was for her, she whose name has been lost but who is sometimes referred to as Mai Kath. Mother Wood. And that sometimes women—nobody knows who—sneak out in the night while their husbands sleep, and leave tribute for her. For she who said no. The first but not the last.

The puppets gleam their turpentine smiles, heavy in my hands. I think of how they danced as the curtains fell. How the house they danced in resembles mine. My house where my girls felt safe when they visited me after school. What should I do?

But I already know.

I know I should be taking these downstairs, giving them to our watchman, telling him to return them to the putliwallahs in the morning. The night is moonless out on the terrace, and I stand against a black backdrop. Soon the lights would turn on behind me, illuminating my true form to the audience.

And I would perform.

What would my role be? In my heart, despite everything, I am a schoolgirl signing autographs on my friends’ white dupattas, filling their uniforms with remembrances of me. I do not have my school dupatta anymore with their signatures and silly poetry, smelling of the ink from our fountain pens. I was not allowed to take it to my married home.

The fat puppet’s face comes into view for a moment. I fancy I see pores on his nose. A mole on his right cheek. Eyebrows raised. Where was your handbag today, jaan? I get you ones from Italy, from London, from Paris, and for what?

The other puppet widens his smile. Lascivious, crimson as a boiled sweet above his white beard.

I wish I was a giant, a demon, a jinn, plucking two mortals from the earth before they dare misbehave. Two monsters.

I wish I was Naghma. Brave and unceasing. Stomping on packets of crisps. Causing earthquakes.

I fling the puppets. From the terrace, as hard as I can. As they fall, I know they will land onto the cricket pitch your father is having made for you in our lawn.

There will be a crack. Two cracks, one for each puppet. When the watchman finds them, I know they will be splintered into atoms, their limbs broken on the cement.

I planned my mourning period in those moments as the puppets hurtled through the air. I did all the math—my widow’s inheritance. My gold, this house. Your future. We would go to America, where your uncles were. Later you say you saw me smiling, but I am sure that I was not. Just thinking on it, that is all.

By the time the puppets land, I know I would always smell ink on dupattas and blood on cement, and I would forever be vigilant of my limbs. Never would I allow strings near them again.

But I never laid a finger on your father, Mithu. Not really. You must realise that.

Fatima Taqvi is a speculative fiction writer from Karachi living in London. She is immensely interested in South Asian history, which she converges with the uncanny in her stories. She is excited to have work appearing in Poora Chaand magazine. Find her on Twitter @FatimaTaqvi and on her website
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