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The Punjab’s Gift

By Paul Haines

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 or going.
‘Namaste,’ Mike says, and his finger begins. ‘I’ll 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 again
I choose whatever Mike hasn’t.
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 bought.
‘What the hell is this?’ Mike sniffs a white oily biscuit.
The café is once again silent. All bets are back on. Double or nothing.
With too much to prove I bite into something unnaturally red, and sweetness fills my mouth. Mike’s 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 don’t 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 respect.
‘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.
‘We’re 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 to Pakistan?’
‘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 he’s 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?’ Mike’s eye’s are shining. ‘What about those stories in the paper?’
‘You thrive on that shit. You stoned?’
‘Fuck no. I’m serious, man. All those bombings recently. They’re 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. ‘You’re bloody paranoid, Mike.’ The headlines are still fresh. Dozens of them are. Almost every day. ‘Fuck this; let’s 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 Sikh’s 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 he’s 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 take it.’
‘I don’t 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 it’s a bomb?’ says Mike, our thoughts riding parallel paranoia. His eyes are no longer shining; they’re burning and his face is slick with sweat. He looks sick.
‘Don’t be stupid, man. That’s 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. I’ve seen the headlines.
Mike’s 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 is speaking.
‘What have you got there, Richard?’ One of the girls calls as she climbs up into the truck. She’s smiling. The street around us is empty.
‘Open it,’ hisses Mike. He moves away, putting the truck between us.
How did I end up holding this? I can’t take it on board, I know these people. Just put it down. Leave it. It’s just a fucking cardboard box. And that’s why the street is empty. In India. Where you are never alone.

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 I’ve 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.
Indian fudge.

© Paul Haines 2001

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.


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