This is the opening scene from a story about my early life in India. It’s the initial draft, and I’ll have to re-write many times before I’m satisfied. If anyone here can help with critical comments, I’ll be most grateful. Stoney.
Assassination – Scene 1 (Draft 1)
I huddled over my balcony desk, surrounded by ancient texts and scrolls that hadn’t seen light for decades. Pages crumbled, tiny mites and spiders crawled out of the bindings. I fussed over every item, documenting what I could, saddened by the knowledge lost from these dried and deteriorating scrolls. The old library was dark except for my small lamp. Long rows of unlit archives spread out behind me, silent except for the scurry of a rat, the groan of an overladen stack of books, or the whisper from some long-dead scribe. Suddenly, the soft swish of fabric, and I startled as a librarian in her silk sari materialized at my side. I took a deep breath, covering my surprise by pulling out my library authorization form, one I had worked hard to secure. It was 1984 and I was a white woman in Calcutta; the Gandhi Memorial Library where I studied was never really convinced I could be a scholar of ancient Hindu mythology.
“You need to leave immediately,” she whispered in a surprisingly hoarse, frightened voice.
“I’m authorized to handle these old scripts,” I countered, showing her my card and letters of introduction from American University in Washington DC. I thought she was just protecting her archives from me, as the other librarians wanted to do, but she paid no attention to my documents.
“It’s not that,” she croaked in a broken voice. “Indira Gandhi has been assassinated. You’re not safe here. Go home and stay inside.” Then she disappeared back into the dark stacks, her sandals slapping hurriedly on the old stone floor.
My mind was blank for a few minutes. Then I looked at the priceless old texts around me and wondered if I’d ever see them again. “Why wouldn’t this quiet library be a safe place?” I whispered to no one. The urgency of leaving caught me as I looked over the balcony and saw the library staff and other patrons running out side doors, locking everything behind them.
I caught a riksha and made my way through chaos toward the small apartment I kept near the Hooghly Bazaar. Shops were closing, people running home or somewhere, grabbing food and supplies. Calcutta streets were always a calamitous dance of vehicles, animals, bikes and humans that I could barely navigate, but now a palpable frenzy, a low hysteria, drove the street. The fear was contagious, and in the midst of the frantic, pushing crowd, I felt alone and vulnerable, even though I didn’t fully understand the cause. I’d been in India for years, and I’d seen impromptu street justice meted out at the scene of an accident, or fights between strangers on the road, but this desperation was something new. The riksha driver also sensed the urgency and left the main road to cut through back alleys, then loop around Fort William where travel toward the river and my home became easier. He was an old man, the riksha driver, and I could see from the tension in his muscles and the instinctual way he avoided groups of young men or agitated crowds, that he knew more about the danger we faced than I did. I paid him well when we reached my apartment and watched him run off, perhaps to help others or find safety in his own home.
Upstairs I found my 10-year-old son, Chris, home early from school. Konika was with him, as always. She had lived with me for more than a decade, guiding and guarding Chris through the perils and joys of young life in India. She had started working as Chris’s nanny in Uttar Pradesh, just after he was born, I spent my days in libraries, documenting old texts and manuscripts related to the origin of Hindu mythology. We had lived in Dehradun, Jaipur, Vrindavan, and Madras, but now we were in central Calcutta. I studied in the disquieting old Gandhi library – with library staff who didn’t want me there – and otherwise simply survived the crush of an overpopulated city that pressed in from all sides of our daily lives. Fortunately, Konika was an astute young Bengali woman and I could trust her to get Chris to school and back, shop for our groceries, and give me sage advice on how to survive rural and urban India.
“You’re home!” I gasped, out of breath from anxiety and climbing the stairs to our 3rd floor apartment. “Did the schools close?” I hugged them both a little longer than normal.
Chris remained silent which didn’t surprise me because he was an undemonstrative child. Konika answered in her soft Bengali, “I don’t know. I heard about the assassination on the radio and just brought him home. Many parents were picking up their children.” I thanked her for her diligence and felt some of my apprehensive dissolve now that we were together and safe. Konika went to the kitchen to cook, Chris to read his Tintin comics, and I to tune the radio, first to a BBC station and then All India, hoping for some national news. I stood at the bay window, watching the local news act itself out on the street below.
Rikshas continued to run past my building, hot and fast. Normally patient shoppers now hustled through the streets, pushing and shoving, looking lost or frantic, trying to make quick decisions in the face of an unknown threat. Dogs were kicked out of the way and some large, slow animals were abandoned as people raced for security. Then I saw the first mob fight, 10 to 12 men against one, giving permission for violence to erupt across the city, wherever a gang of men could find a scapegoat.
I still didn’t really understand what was happening. Twenty years earlier, U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. I joined the rest of my countrymen in shock and sadness. We cried and mourned and asked questions of a government that lied, obfuscated, and promulgated war. Some of us blamed Texas, but we blamed Texas for lots of things. We did not, however, run into the street and start mobbing innocent people. The radio said Gandhi had been killed by her Sikh guards, and it was turbaned Sikhs being mobbed and beaten in the street outside my window. I believed that Lee Harvey Oswald – a young, white, American male – had killed Kennedy, but I would have been astounded if there had been a nationwide attack on all young, white males as a result. The lawlessness of the Calcutta street violence, the anarchy of all things moral and right from my own upbringing, made me tremble in fear as the end of day brought darkness to my window and terror for anyone on the street.
Days went past, Chris stayed home from school, the door stayed bolted although we heard voices in the apartment building hallway…shouts, cries, then silence. On the morning of the fourth or fifth day, Konika said we were out of food and that she would try to get to the bazaar. Neighbors had told her that the American CIA had been implicated in the assassination, and although I had no doubt that Gandhi’s death played out on the larger world stage, I didn’t want to be held personally accountable for the political machinations of my country or any other. If rumor on the street blamed Americans, how would a mob determine that I was a research scholar and not a covert operative? Perception is always reality in the absence of fact, and ignorance has a bullhorn in a mob. I let Konika go out, and she made it home without incident, while I hid like a quiet, hunted animal waiting for danger to pass.
End Scene 1 – Assassination (Draft 1)