The Nightmare

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Photo by Ridham Parikh on Unsplash

In February 2002, four months after Narendra Modi, now the prime minister of India, became chief minister of Gujarat, bloody communal clashes erupted in the western Indian state. Also known as the Gujarat pogrom, the riots led to a large-scale massacre whose victims were overwhelmingly Muslims. Set against this backdrop, “Nightmare” plunges into the mind of a Hindu woman who finds herself alongside a burkha-clad Muslim woman in an almost empty train compartment late one night. In a rollicking internal monologue, the woman battles with a self-perceived threat from her co-passenger. The narrator’s imploding anxiety morphs her perception of the world around her until the Muslim woman calls out, “Khuda hafiz,” invoking God’s protection, and disembarks the train.

Collected by Aleph Book Company in its anthology The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told, the narrative draws a delicate balance between the ways social stereotyping can induce claustrophobia and the liberating effect of human connection. “Nightmare” is an exercise in expanding empathy and an example of how writers take up the task of cataloging and examining the biases of their societies.

— Raaza Jamshed for Guernica Global Spotlights

My fingers fly over the computer keys, but my eyes are on the clock. I won’t be able to catch the first MEMU train today. Mrs. Rao drives me nuts! She has to think up this assignment at the very last minute, just when it’s time to leave. Sure, she has a point when she says that the office has reopened after ten or twelve days. But, my dear woman, you merely have to ride pillion on your husband’s bike and then you’re home for a hot meal of idlis and sambhar. As for me? If I miss the train, I have to wait at the station for a good hour or so and then travel for another two hours to a different city, fearful and trembling, in what’s probably going to be an empty compartment. But how can I expect you to understand that? There! Thank God it’s over…ah! There’s an auto here. Good.

Arre, bhai, hurry up, please. The curfew’s been lifted after so many days — no wonder people are rushing out of their homes as if they’ve been uncaged. They’re a mindless lot, taking off in their cars and two-wheelers now, but if one firecracker bursts, they’ll rush home to lock themselves up again. Good God, did this light have to turn red this very minute? But as they say, akarmi no padiyo kaano — the unfortunate one also has a broken bowl. I’ve got exactly seven rupees with me, so I won’t waste time looking for change. All these people coming out of the station — please, would you make way for those who have trains to catch? And these railway people, they’re just incorrigible. Trust them to put the staircase right at the end of this long platform. My train is from Platform 4 and is just about to leave. Let me run…just the last two steps and…there! Damn! Missed it.

“Ben,” the chaiwalla says, “now you’ll have to wait for an hour.” Why is he looking at me in that strange way? There’s not a single commuter on the platform. Two minutes ago it had been swarming with people. Now they seem to have taken off like a flock of birds when someone hurls a stone at them.

Perhaps I should go to Smita’s house. I’m not likely to have company on the train, even if I spend a whole hour at the station. Fear still hangs in the air. When the chaiwalla looks at me, I’m afraid. Who knows, he might throw things at me. Who knows which caste he belongs to. People like us don’t believe in caste, creed, or community, but he can’t know that, can he? He’s looking at my chandlo, my mangalsutra. No, no…everybody’s not like that. I’m thirsty. Where’s the bottle of water? I think I put it in my bag…oh, there it is, but it’s empty!

Maybe I should call home from this phone booth and also buy a bottle of water. And a magazine. Vikram answers the phone. He’s upset that I couldn’t catch the first train. But I hang up on him. I don’t allow his annoyance, swinging through the phone, to reach me. The fellow manning the telephone booth dispenses advice: “Ben, don’t go home so late by train. Things were different earlier, but now you can’t take any risks.” So what has changed in these last ten days, I ask myself. Do people not shed tears any more? Don’t they love? Aren’t babies born any more? Have flowers begun to wilt before they blossom? Nothing’s really changed. But then what is the reason behind this fear, this suspicion everywhere?

Let me do some browsing at the bookstall. It’s all the same: the newspapers are full of the play of numbers, the dance of death, the game of fire, the fury of bullets…I pick up two magazines and settle down on a bench.

The platform is deserted. The fires have been put out at the tea stalls, and the oil used for frying savory snacks has gone cold. The boys who work at the stalls are half asleep. Bottles of aerated drinks have been returned to their crates. The lame boy who polishes shoes is sleeping peacefully, using his shoe stand as a pillow. But the dog lying near my bench is restless. He looks around, then gets up, looks around again, cranes his neck, pricks up his ears as if listening to something, and then curls up again. Then he’s up again. There are two dogs fighting on the platform across from ours. Is he frightened of them?

I notice that there is a woman sitting next to me now. She wears a thick black burkha, and only her hands are visible. She has a large cloth bag with her. The veil of the burkha hides her eyes, but I can feel her gaze upon me. Why did she have to come and sit next to me when there are so many unoccupied benches on the platform? What does she have in mind? Is she carrying a bomb in that bag of hers? What if she leaves the bag here and walks away and the bomb goes off? What will happen to me then? That would be disaster for my poor husband and children. But let me not think such things. Poor thing, she’s just sitting quietly. But does that mean she’s really harmless? Should I move away? Maybe go elsewhere? My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth, refusing to move. My fingers clutch my handbag. Despite the chill of the evening air, I am perspiring, and a bead of sweat falls from my forehead onto my hand.

“Kem ben? Where are you off to?” Chiman, the daalwada seller, descends like a savior. I feel blood surging through my veins again. It is as though the curfew has been lifted once more. “You’re late, ben. The first train has left.” Smiling, I nod, afraid to open my mouth. What if I stutter?

“Why are you sitting here?” He signals me to get up. “At such times, you shouldn’t be sitting here.” But my feet will not move. Chiman smirks at my foolishness and walks away. He’s right. I should get up from here. You never know what she might do, this woman. She could pull a knife out of her bag and stab me, and no one would see. Arre, she only has to kick me and I will collapse. Look at her hands, how big and masculine they are! Is there a hardened criminal hiding behind that burkha? How do I get up? Why did I have to travel at this time? Lord Ram, please let me reach home safely. Should she try anything, I will tell her, Listen, woman, take what you want, but don’t kill me. My throat is parched and hurts; my hands are frozen. I decide that the moment I see someone coming, I’ll get up. I discreetly look around the platform for another person, moving my eyes from one side to the other. Not a soul. Where have all the people gone?

It seems like only yesterday that this platform was buzzing with life — trains coming and going all the time, people rushing from here to there; it was difficult to even find a spot to stand. And the ladies’ compartment in which I travel every day — at every station women usually pour in, like grains being threshed, and some get off the train. Once they find a place to sit, handbags and baskets are opened, and beans, peas, and garlic are taken out. They begin to peel, sort, and, sometimes, chop. At times, needles and colorful yarns emerge and turn into flowers and petals on saris and kurtas and woolen jumpers. Packets of papad, pickles, chutney, and masala are bought and sold. The tears of women tortured by husbands and mothers-in-law are wiped, bittersweet office gossip is exchanged, sweets are distributed to celebrate engagements and weddings; occasionally, even blows and curses are traded, Ramrakshakavach verses and the Gayatri mantra are chanted, or room is made to offer namaz. As we cross more stations, the vacant seats fill up…But where are all these faces today? Where are the bags of peas, beans, garlic, papad, and masala? They seem to have been replaced by terrified faces and bags full of suspicion. How can I get away from here?

Arre, the train has arrived. I didn’t even notice it entering the station. Okay, I have to head straight into the ladies’ compartment. Oh dear, the burkha-clad woman is climbing in after me. Why doesn’t she leave me alone? The compartment’s virtually empty — barely two or three women. A fisherwoman is fast asleep with her empty basket next to her. The basket stinks, but at least there is the presence of another human being. The woman in the burkha sits facing me.

It is dark outside, black like the burkha she’s wearing. There isn’t a sliver of light for me to hold on to and sail through this dark ocean of the night. What shall I do? I shut my eyes, hoping the darkness will go away, hoping to escape those eyes that are fixed on me. What must she be thinking now? People say you can’t trust them. You never know when they might draw a knife and butcher you. I remember a classmate of mine from college, Hasina. Her brother had stabbed his wife. I couldn’t help wondering if this woman might also do the same.

Oh God, someone’s shaking me. I open my eyes — it’s the woman in the burkha! Oh no, what will she do to me? Should I shout for help? The fisherwoman is fast asleep. She won’t know if I get killed. Should I jump off the moving train? Oh God, please, please come to my rescue! I promise never to get on this train again. I’ll even give up my job and stop commuting. It is better to starve than to suffer this nightmare.

“Benji, benji,” the woman says, “I’m getting off here. I’m so grateful that you were around; imagine traveling alone at such a time. I was so scared, you know…it is so difficult…I can’t believe it!”

She’s frightened, like me! I burst out laughing.

“What’s there to be scared of, ben? I do the ‘up-down’ every day.” My voice suddenly acquires more force than the train’s whistle.

She places her hand on mine and says, “Khuda hafiz.” It’s moist and sweaty, and as she touches me, my sweat merges with hers. The train stops. I help her with her bag, which suddenly seems light and harmless. She melts away under the faint light of the station. The fisherwoman yawns. She stretches her limbs and takes a bag out of her basket. The greenness of beans spills out and infuses everything. The stars twinkle in the dark and brighten my way home.

“Nightmare,” written by Minal Dave and translated by Rita Kothari. Originally published in the anthology The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told (2022), from the New Delhi–based independent publisher Aleph Book Company, which describes itself as publishing “books of enduring literary quality from (and about) India and other South Asian countries.”