The Punjabs Gift
The scents of cardoman, spice and sugar hang heavy in the air. Strange,
misshapen lumps, brown and red and white, some chalky, while others
sweat in the dry heat. The square, dense shapes towards the back of
the display may be fudge.
The man behind the counter smiles and wiggles his head from side to
side, silently urging us to sample the delights of his wares. His moustache
is oiled and I can almost see my reflection in his dark, brown eyes.
His teeth look like they have seen too much of what he has to offer.
On the wall behind him, Vishnu smiles down benignly, in colours exploding.
Eat, he whispers, and the colours swirl.
I glance at Mike, aware the café is silent, all eyes upon us,
the ignorant, tourists, the Westerners, off the beaten track. But only
just; the truck and the rest of the group are within easy walking distance.
We can almost hear the shuffle of dirty rupees passing discreetly below
tables, behind backs and under hands, as the locals bet on us staying
Namaste, Mike says, and his finger begins. Ill
have one of those, some of those, and that one there, no, no, that one.
The shopkeeper grins widely, and time resumes inside the café
I choose whatever Mike hasnt.
We sit at a small, wooden table, bare except for some unburnt incense,
towards the rear of the cafe. Its colour is not unlike the food we have
What the hell is this? Mike sniffs a white oily biscuit.
The café is once again silent. All bets are back on. Double or
With too much to prove I bite into something unnaturally red, and sweetness
fills my mouth. Mikes head tilts forward slightly, eyebrows raised,
and he follows suite, the white biscuit suddenly consumed.
Is good? The shopkeeper asks, leaning over the counter.
I dont think his feet can be touching the ground.
Is good, Mike grins, and finally the café goes about
its daily business.
An elderly Sikh, resplendent in white cottons and silk, his turban adorned
with exotic feathers, nods and smiles at us from a far table. He whispers
something to a man at his table and they laugh. His beard is woven up
into his turban.
Where are you from? he calls from across the room.
Nods of approval; at least here, in the Punjab, our mighty nation commands
Do you like India? he calls again.
We nod back enthusiastically, finger to mouth, savouring the sweet delicacies
before us. Indian heads bob, white teeth in brown faces.
Were off to Amritsar, says Mike.
Oh, replies the Sikh, and the room falls quiet once more.
He looks at the others around him. A heartbeat passes. And then
Yes, says Mike.
No, I say too late.
Mike glares at me until he realises. A war is still being fought here
and Amritsar lies in the heart of it. A border town built on passports
and guns, looking fearfully, contemptuously towards the west.
The Sikh watches us eat in silence and then he stands. Wait here.
I have a gift for you. He disappears into the haze of the street
and slowly conversation returns to the café, like nervous wildebeest
to the watering hole.
We finish our meals, thank the shopkeeper, and step outside into the
heat. The street is teeming with people, working, loitering, begging
and scamming, the babble loud and chaotic. Crowds push past us, eyes
staring, mouths yabbering incessantly, and dirty fingers groping. The
heavy smell of spice and unwashed bodies assail our noses. Two scrawny
donkeys pull an over-laden cart of baked animal shit and the small boy
aboard briefly pauses in his whipping to flash us a grin.
Wonder what hes getting us? says Mike.
Fucked if I know. What time is it? Shit. We leave in ten minutes.
Sweat drips from my armpits, trickling coolly down my sides.
Why would he want to give us something?
I dunno, Mike. Perhaps he likes us.
Time ticks and sweat drips. Flys descend and eat the salt off our skins.
I can see the truck from here. The rest of the crew are milling around
it, ready to board.
Where the fuck is he? We gotta go.
What if he wants us to carry something over the border?
Mikes eyes are shining. What about those stories in
You thrive on that shit. You stoned?
Fuck no. Im serious, man. All those bombings recently. Theyre
not far from here!
A thin, dark scarecrow, straw sprouting from his chin, thrusts his face
forward, bony hand outstretched and croaks Baksheesh! Baksheesh!
I push the beggar gently away. Youre bloody paranoid, Mike.
The headlines are still fresh. Dozens of them are. Almost every day.
Fuck this; lets go.
Ah, Aussies, the Sikh calls, emerging from the crowd, his
white silk bright and clean in the sunlight. I hoped you would
still be here. Here is your gift.
He hands Mike a plain cardboard box, twice as wide as a shoe-box though
not as deep. The Sikhs hand stops him from opening it.
Not now, he smiles. Your truck waits. Go.
His arm ushers us forward and our legs jerk back towards our truck.
I look back and hes standing there surrounded by villagers, all
smiling and waving. Remember the Punjab!
We walk quickly and Mike shoves the box into my hands. Here, you
I dont want it. The box is heavy, far too heavy for
its size. Something large inside slides from one side to the other.
Too heavy. Bus torn to pieces. Twenty dead.
What if its a bomb? says Mike, our thoughts riding
parallel paranoia. His eyes are no longer shining; theyre burning
and his face is slick with sweat. He looks sick.
Dont be stupid, man. Thats bullshit. People
on the street are avoiding us. The seas part. Everyone is staring. Behind
me the Sikh has disappeared. I try to hold the box level. No more sliding.
Too heavy. Ive seen the headlines.
Mikes walking ahead now, his pace faster. Black stubble upon paling
face. His shirt is stuck to his back. Like mine.
The box is too heavy. There is too much noise in my head, though no-one
What have you got there, Richard? One of the girls calls
as she climbs up into the truck. Shes smiling. The street around
us is empty.
Open it, hisses Mike. He moves away, putting the truck between
How did I end up holding this? I cant take it on board, I know
these people. Just put it down. Leave it. Its just a fucking cardboard
box. And thats why the street is empty. In India. Where you are
The driver of the truck, my friend, smiles and nods, and I can only
think of one thing. Will I feel it? My hand looks steady, my eyes brim
with sweat, and I reach for the lid. I try to pull it off gently, but
it sticks, so I work at it slowly. Time has stopped. I can hear nothing
for the blood in my ears. I notice Ive wandered away from the
truck, my back to them, using my body as a shield. I hope Mike has made
it far enough away.
I pull off the lid.
© Paul Haines
This is Paul's first piece for us. He lives and writes in Australia.
he is working on his first novel.
If you like his work, email him and say hi.
More fiction in DREAMSCAPES