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Belonging

By Umi Sinha

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Peshawar, India, 14th July 1907

She turned back to the fanlight. Most of the faces were turned towards her mother, who was sitting with her back to the fanlight, so all the child could see were her animated hand gestures and her ringlets swaying as she turned her head. Her father, sitting opposite, seemed abstracted, and barely spoke or touched his food. She noticed the blonde lady pick up the edge of the tablecloth and examine it, then say something to Uncle Roland. He looked down at it and then sharply up at her mother, then glanced towards her father, who didn’t seem to notice. At long last dinner was over.

[…]

As the plates, place mats and large silver platters were lifted away, voices rose in admiration, then faltered. A hush fell as everyone stared at the cloth. The servants, puzzled by the silence, turned to look, the dishes poised in their hands. It was like the scene from Sleeping Beauty when everyone in the palace was turned to stone.

She knelt up and rubbed at the smeary window, trying to see the cloth more clearly, but all she could make out was a mass of swirling colours and shapes. Then everything was noise and motion: there were shouts of anger and disgust as people jumped to their feet; chairs fell to the floor but no one stopped to pick them up as they jostled to get out the doors to the drawing room. The lady in pink looked faint; the pregnant lady snatched up a napkin and was sick into it; the elderly man put his arm around her and glared at her mother.

Alarmed, she turned to get down but servants were spilling out of the doors below her so they could run round to see to their masters and mistresses. From the front of the bungalow she heard Afzal Khan shouting for the syces to bring the carriages up.

She looked back into the room and saw the old soldier stop and squeeze her father’s shoulder as he passed, but her father did not look up. His eyes were fixed on the table in front of him and his face was expressionless, as though he was listening to a voice only he could hear. Uncle Roland appeared in the doorway and hesitated. He stepped towards the table as though to speak, but stopped, his eyes fixed on the tablecloth in front of her father; then he turned and walked from the room, brushing past Afzal Khan, who was handing out hats, shawls and sticks to the departing guests. When the last one had gone, Afzal Khan pulled the double doors closed from the other side. She waited for him to come back so she could ask him what had happened but he must have forgotten her, because no one came.

The rain had stopped now, and everything was silent except for the steady creaking of the punkah; only the two of them remained in the dining room, her father staring at the cloth, her mother at the sideboard. It wasn’t until her father moved that she realised she had been holding her breath. He pushed back his chair, got heavily to his feet and walked past his wife without looking at her.

As he passed below the shelf, she turned. There was a moment when she might have reached down, when she might have touched the top of his head where the scalp showed through the thinning hair. But he had already moved on, down the corridor towards his study.

Her first impulse was to jump down, to follow him, but curiosity held her still. She shifted and rubbed her legs, gasping at the agonising pins and needles, as she watched her mother dreamily stroking the cloth, her head tilted, as though she too was listening to some faraway sound.

But when the sound came it was not far away at all but very near, and so loud that for a few moments afterwards the child’s ears rang.

She threw herself backwards off the shelf, and as her feet hit the ground she heard Afzal Khan shout something from the compound and the scrape of a dining chair. She would never remember getting to the study, just the feel of the cool brass knob under her hand and the sight that met her eyes as she fell in the door.

Inside the study, a fountain of red – a pure, beautiful red – had spouted up the wall behind the desk and spattered over the ceiling. The smell of cordite and something sharper, metallic, caught in her throat. On the shelf behind the desk the bronze statue of Shiva was dancing in the lamplight, his shadowy limbs undulating against the wall in his circle of flames. She stared at it, trying not to look at the thing slumped over the desk. There was a strange vibration, a silent drumbeat; the air quivered in time to it and the shadows moved faster, the god’s limbs a blur. She shivered and looked down at the fine red mist settling on her bare arms.

Blind and dizzy, she turned towards the door and collided with someone coming in. Sharp nails sank into her shoulders. She bit back a cry of pain and looked up. Her mother was standing in front of her, looking not at her but at the wall behind her. In the soft lamplight her face was as composed as the picture of the Madonna that hung above her bed. Her eyes followed the fountain up and back down to the desk, as the child waited for her expression to change. She heard her mother’s breath release and felt a shudder run through her as her fingers released their grip. She took a step back and then, as the girl watched, her eyes widened and her lips curled into a smile.

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