Fiction: Saskya Jain

Saskya Jain (Fiction 2010) is an Indian author whose work has featured in The Economist, Hyphen and The Baffler. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Boston University, where she received the Florence Engel Randall Award and the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship.  Fire Under Ash (Random House India, 2014) is her first novel. 


LALLAN, Chapter 2 of Fire Under Ash

The prayer mark his mother pressed on to his forehead with the tip of her middle finger had dried on his skin as a heavy drop. Periodically, Lallan wiggled his brows to make sure he still felt it there, afraid that it would get brushed off in the hustle and bustle of the railway platform at Patna Junction, which was filled with families seeing off their relatives on the evening train to Delhi. Every train brought tides of people to its side, the force of their ebb and flow proportionate to the hope invested in the passengers’ destinations to bring about some kind of change in their lives. Lallan told himself that he would remember to scratch the dried vermilion off before exiting the train in Delhi—he liked it mainly for sentimental, not religious, reasons.

He waved his family over to where the station attendant had said his carriage would come to a halt. Together, they carved a space for themselves near the edge of the platform: Lallan’s father, short, potbellied but otherwise surprisingly slim, in a pressed kurta pyjama, with a profusion of black hairs shooting out of his ears; his mother, even shorter and pencil-thin, in a pale yellow sari with a red border, her hair grey along the inside of her middle parting, leading back to a single thick braid; his two sisters, Sonal and Shagun, the older one in a lilac salwar-kameez with a white dupatta folded over her growing chest, the younger one in a T-shirt and jeans with a Mickey Mouse patch sewed on below the right pocket. With her hand resting on the younger one’s shoulder stood Swapna.

They had last seen each other at their engagement ten days earlier, which had only been their second meeting in toto. In fact, ‘meeting’ overdramatized the event: it had added up to little more than their shared presence in his family’s living room.

The first time he had seen her had been on the headshot stamped ‘Harvard Professional Photo Studio, Patna’, now tucked somewhere between the pages of his planner in the front pocket of his backpack, one strap of which had ripped from the weight of books. Today he finally saw what she really looked like. He liked her better without the make-up, which was so heavy in the picture and at the engagement ceremony that she could have been living next door to him all his life and he would not have recognized her. The thin lips and pimply forehead were a slight disappointment, but it could have been worse. He had not wanted her to come to the station—and she certainly didn’t look as if she wanted to be there, either—but both of their parents had insisted. Everyone wanted to be seen as modern these days.

Lallan let his gaze fly over her and his sisters as he turned to his father. He ran his tongue along the inside of his lower lip, making his chin bulge. What could you expect from a Patna girl, anyway? Then his mouth curled into a smile. There were more important reasons to get married than love. And he could still not quite fathom that everything had worked out so bloody well in the end.

‘So,’ Lallan’s father began. Summarizing the facts was the closest he would come to showing emotion. ‘You’re going to be away for one year.’

‘Ji, Papaji,’ Lallan confirmed, his amusement restricted to his inside.

‘Ten and a half months,’ Lallan’s mother muttered.

‘Ji, Mummyji. Ten and a half months is exact.’

‘It’s Delhi,’ his father continued. ‘So be careful.’

‘Ji, Papaji.’

‘And if anyone tries to undermine you because you are Bihari, always remember that you’ve come this far on your own merit and that not many Patna boys have won the Azad College scholarship. If any.’

‘Ji, Papaji, I won’t forget.’ From the corner of his eye he could see that Swapna still had her gaze cast downwards. Maybe she’s asleep, he thought. Then, narrowing his eyes, It’s her mind that’s asleep. Cheer up, he told himself, you’re going to Delhi for a whole year. Plus, you made a choice for your career. That word finally derailed the feeling of gloom. What a career it was.

He had convinced his parents to let him go to Delhi now, in June, cleverly arguing that this would allow him to get used to the city so that he would not be distracted once classes began at the end of July. The excitement of his journey and his free time in Delhi made it impossible for him to give in to any deeper sort of melancholy, or to see Swapna as his future wife. He shut her out of his mind, annoyed now that she seemed so immune to the shrill sense of expectation that fevered through his body, so utterly unimpressed that her future husband was leaving for Delhi to complete his master’s at the country’s most prestigious college, after which he would return to take up his post as Assistant Professor at Patna University. Then his expression softened as he had to admit to himself that, ultimately, he owed this position to her.

When Lallan had been finishing his bachelor’s degree in history at Patna University a few months earlier, his professor had taken him aside. ‘You’re a smart fellow, Lallan. And loyal.’ He had told him about the assistant professorship, which would become vacant a month or two after Lallan’s graduation from Delhi the following year, qualifying him for the job.

‘Four lakhs,’ the professor had said before Lallan could thank him. ‘Two for holding the job, two on signing the contract.’

Lallan had looked at him, not understanding. ‘My salary, Sir?’

The professor had laughed. ‘Such a sweet boy you are. That’s why I like you.’ He leaned back in his faux-leather office chair, eliciting happy squeals from it. ‘I’m the chairman of the selection committee, which means I decide who gets the job. Four lakhs is the payment to get the job, due to me in two instalments as per the guidelines just mentioned.’ With a hint of apology he added, ‘My son wants to go to US.’

‘But, with all due respect as your humble student, Sir, I will be by far the most qualified candidate,’ Lallan heard himself saying, knowing that his family did not have four lakhs and would never be able to pay back such a large loan. ‘None of the other applicants will have an MA from Azad College, Delhi, Sir.’

‘Which is exactly why I want you for this job, Lallan!’ the professor had said and stood. ‘That is why I called you here to personally encourage you to get the advance money fast. You will be a great asset to our university. But I know for a fact that at least one of the other candidates won’t mind paying a little extra, you see. So just get the money, and let me take care of the rest.’

That evening, Lallan had gone to his father, who was reclining on the cot in the living room in front of the TV with his metal toothpick sticking out of the corner of his mouth.

‘Papaji,’ he had begun. ‘I don’t think I can afford a teaching job at the university. Maximum high school.’ He explained the whole situation to his father. ‘It will be the same at all universities here,’ he said when he was finished. ‘Maybe I should not go to Delhi but switch to sales or accounting.’

An hour later, Lallan leaned back, amazed. His father, not a learned man but possessing an uncanny talent for making connections where the ordinary eye saw none, had come up with a rock-solid plan: Put out an ad in the Patna matrimonials for a soon-to-be university professor, fix the dowry at four lakhs. Take out a loan for the two lakhs advance and pay the deposit on the job. Get married upon graduation from Delhi, receive the dowry. Pay back the loan to the bank and the remaining money to the Professorsahab. Start your first day as Assistant Professor, Department of History, Patna University, with no money owed and a better-than-average wife ready to serve you dinner at home.

The Professorsahab would get his money, the wife would get a husband with status and Lallan would get not only the job he deserved but a wife to match his new position. ‘Papaji,’ Lallan said, still shaking his head in wonderment. ‘How is this possible? This morning I was thinking, Forget about it, I’ll never make it in this world, and now I’m thinking, God himself arranged for this bribe!’

Swapna was the only daughter in a family of sons and the parents wanted to marry her well. They had some means but no stature. Lallan was a professor-in-the-making, a role that eventually came with assigned campus housing in addition to the deference and perks inherent in the title. Lallan had kissed the tiny Hanuman hanging from a thick black thread around his neck when his father had told him that the dowry had been fixed as required.

The platform erupted into frenetic movement as the travellers spotted their train approaching. Before picking up the three brand-new suitcases—not the metal trunks his father still travelled with but the hard shell plastic ones bearing the label V.I.P., which Lallan had turned into a V.V.I.P. with the help of one of Sonal’s alphabet stickers—Lallan bent down to touch his father’s feet, then felt his hand on his cheek as he stood. They wrapped an arm around each other’s waist for a sideways hug. ‘God bless you,’ he said. Then, into Lallan’s ear, ‘Do well, beta. Life doesn’t give you such two-for-one deals very often.’

The light-hearted tone in his father’s voice was a complete surprise. For a second, Lallan could say nothing. There was a sparkle in his father’s eye that Lallan could not remember ever seeing before. ‘Buy one get one free,’ Lallan mumbled back and quickly wiped a tear from his lashes. It hit him that he was not going to see his family, the home he had grown up in, and Patna for a year. Ten and a half months, he corrected himself. He had never been away for that long. What awaited him in Delhi? He cast another quick glance at Swapna as he hugged his mother. Tight-lipped, pea-brained, half-baked or not, Swapna was the woman who would be obliged to be there for him for the rest of his life.

Fire Under Ash was published by Random House India in 2014.