“A Magician and a Marriage” – Fiction by Sagnik Datta

Girl With the Broken Doll - Paritosh Sen, 2005
Girl With the Broken Doll – Paritosh Sen, 2005

Magic and marriage are major themes in our Spring 2015 issue— especially in Sagnik Datta‘s aptly-titled “A Magician and a Marriage.”

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AFTER LEARNING MAGIC FROM THE SADHU ON THE BANKS OF THE GANGES, Narayan came back to his village incognito, in a long beard and a long dark robe that reached his knees, a jute bag on his shoulder, and with a stick, almost two feet long with knots in two places. He introduced himself as ‘Naran Jadugar’, the greatest magician that Sindoor has ever seen, and spent the first weeks under the peepal tree in the bank of the Mohini River.

He attracted a good crowd on the first two days with little more than a beggar’s provisions, showing them tricks he had learnt from the sadhu, and a small number of tricks he devised on his own; but the audience soon thinned due to the repetition and monotony of the tricks. Once, a stooge was caught, and it caused Narayan much embarrassment, and there was one day when he had to show his magic in front of only a dog which wagged its tail whenever Naran Jadugar uttered a paranormal word.

Narayan’s father, who five years earlier forced his son out of his house for failing in Mathematics, heard of the magician, but did not feel the urge to go and see for himself. When a friend of his pointed out the similarities in the facial characteristics of Naran Jadugar and Narayan, Narayan’s father spit out a jet of betel-red from his mouth.

“No,” he said after heavy contemplation, “my son did not know magic, and he is not talented enough to learn anything.”

But over the next few days, more and more people came to him and spoke to him of the same thing.

“Hmm, seems like the idiot is back,” he said, spitting out the betel-red and wiping his mouth.

The reunion of father and son brought out tears in the eyes of both. Narayan left his shade, and a pigeon flew out of his back, unhindered and to the claps of the children who watched it for free. He hugged his father, his father hugged him back.

“Come home, son.”

But Narayan didn’t. His lips trembled while saying no.

He was unrelenting and showed the signs of the stubbornness that characterized his father, not even bending under the threat of a slap. Their arguments flowed till sunset, and a crowd gathered around them, periodically varying their opinions as they listened to the speakers.

Defeated, Narayan’s father returned home, reeking of the breaths of failure.

Narayan’s mother, Shashibala, heard it all. She came out of the house at night, proceeded to the peepal tree alone, with her searching owlish glances probing the darkness. She returned with her son within a quarter of an hour.

Narayan stayed in the house at night, but in the balmy mornings he would be back under the peepal tree with his magical belongings, and would sometimes show his tricks to nonexistent spectators and bask in vanity at their claps and hoots. On certain clear days, he would also venture out to the neighbouring village of Nandangram where, just like Sindoor, he attracted good crowds on the first days, but then they thinned, and one person had even thrown a ripened tomato at him once but had thankfully missed.

Yet a certain little girl, aged fourteen, with large wide kohl-lined eyes and a single ponytail hanging from the back of her head, was a regular at the show. Even after she had seen all the tricks and knew what would happen next, she would still sit and watch in admiration and silence, with her glass doll in her lap. Her name was Uma.

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Narayan continued in this same way for four years. After every show, with the one or two rupees he had earned, he would go with Uma to a nearby sweet shop where they would eat warm rosogollas and dark juicy chomchoms. He particularly liked the way Uma would drink the syrup left on the plate after eating the sweet with a light sipping sound, and also the way she sometimes asked her doll to nibble at the sweet, which it only very rarely did.

Narayan’s father, whose pension had grown irregular for two years and then, having had enough again, borrowed money from well-wishers and relatives, set up in a vibrant corner of the Sindoor marketplace a small shop with walls of cane and a roof of corrugated tin, only slightly smaller than the house in which they lived. He then bought goods to sell: normal things, from toothpowder to beedis to torch batteries to homemade soaps and detergents.

“Narayan,” he said one day, having brought him to the market, and with a proud hand motioning towards the shop, “this is yours.”

“But baba, I want to do magic.”

It was then that he was slapped, in full view of the market.

“This idiot will ruin us,” his father told his mother, who acted as a mediator between the two males of the house.

The neighbours suggested getting Narayan married to a nice girl.

All of them agreed to it, and while his parents were searching for a suitable bride and had already finalized three candidates, Narayan came home with a lissome dark girl of eighteen who clutched a glass doll in her hand. Her eyes and chest were small, and she sometimes poked inside her nostrils with her fingers, and spoke to her doll in hushed notes.

“I will marry her,” Narayan said.

The girl said she would marry Naran Jadugar, and blushed. When people asked why, she said that he was funny and always made her laugh, and also because he was the greatest magician she knew.

The girl’s family accused Narayan of stealing her, and said that they would report to the police if their marriage was not performed.

So on one December evening, amidst the shehnai and the flowers, Uma sat on her seat to marry her favourite magician, with her glass doll, which looked like a disfigured baby, on her lap.

Uma’s brother gave a bicycle, a kerosene stove, and six hundred rupees as dowry, which was officially termed as a gift. Narayan’s father sold the bicycle after two weeks to buy more goods for the shop.

The newlyweds slept in Narayan’s room, over his mattress, where there was barely room for one. Their giggles, and Uma’s childish features and the innocent voice with which she conversed lightly, breathed life into the old worn house.

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Narayan’s mother was pleased, but Narayan’s father lamented that the purpose of the marriage was not fulfilled, and had actually backfired, as now Narayan showed his monotonous magic tricks even inside his house. The house filled with white and grey cats, and yellow eggs, and tricoloured handkerchiefs which smelled of smoke and merriment, and also pins which could change shapes, and special flowers for Uma, which could change from rose to jasmine to hibiscus to nightlily, as the day progressed. Uma clapped relentlessly at each trick, never getting tired.

The rice counter ran low, and Narayan’s father, possibly from the grief of his inability to shape his son’s life, died.

“Magic is a big lie,” he told Narayan on his death bed, “it cannot turn paper into money.”

“But father …”

Narayan’s father stopped him. “It is the last wish of your dying father, son!”

By the time Narayan returned from the crematorium, bald and with the ashes of his recently burned father, one could look at his eyes and notice in them the wisdom found only in the ancient, and it was evident that Narayan had changed, and that Naran Jadugar had permanently lost to a foe who did not exist anymore.

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That day, Narayan discarded his jute bag of magical things above the old wooden almirah, out of reach of Uma, who didn’t hide her displeasure at the change.

“Magic is a lie,” Narayan told her. “Magic cannot bring food from air,” he added.

Narayan began to sit in his shop each day. At first the customers didn’t come, but then once, out of boredom, Narayan started juggling batteries and dolls and ribbon rolls, and a crowd gathered in front of the shop. Since then his sales increased, with Narayan customarily putting on a daily little performance during peak hours.

Uma seemed to be the only one discontented with the proceedings. In the evenings, Narayan would often find her lying in the backyard, on the grass by the well, looking at the stars, with the doll on her chest, and tears in her eyes. Narayan watched her, and a terrible sadness gripped his lungs. But he knew that what he was doing was right and justified and in no way could anything have been done better.

One day when he returned home in the evening, Narayan could hear the shouts in his house from four houses away. He noticed Mandira, one of the girls his parents had shortlisted for him to marry, standing at the entrance and giggling. When she saw Narayan she smiled, and with a haughty air, swayed her hips and walked away.

Narayan was welcomed into the house by his mother yelling at the top of her voice, and Uma sitting on the earthen floor with her legs apart, crying in a monotonous drawn-out tone like a cat, and squeezing her eyes with her hands. Her hair was strewn all over her body, and the kohl in her eyes had blackened her cheeks. Even the floor had turned muddy with all the water she had released from her eyes.

“What is the matter, mother?” Narayan asked.

Shashibala then, with aggravated hand gestures, told Narayan how his dear little wife had started blubbering after he had gone out, and that she had stood on the wooden stool and had taken down his jute bag from the top of the almirah. The bag had fallen with a thud, releasing dust and spider webs all around the house. But that was not all. The bag, after falling down, shook with a frightening vigour, and as Uma had opened its mouth, strange cats with the heads and wings of pigeons started coming out and flying all over the place. They picked up pots and dropped them on the ground, and one of them also dropped the small black radio which Narayan had recently bought. Uma had been clapping and jumping all the time these creatures from hell had been causing havoc in the house. When they went away, disappearing in an audible burst of smoke, Uma had sat down, looking spent and devastated. When Narayan’s mother, after cleaning the room of the strange cats’ droppings, had asked Uma to cut the spinach for dinner, Uma remained seated in the same posture. After an hour, and Narayan’s mother having done all the work herself, she asked Uma to pick up water from the well; but still she remained sitting, playing with her doll. Then the spirit and anger of her late husband visited Narayan’s mother. She shrieked, forced the glass doll from Uma’s hand, and threw it out into the streets through the open door. A cart broke it into pieces, and Uma had been crying since then.

“Deal with her the way you deem fit,” Shashibala said, and stamping her foot on the floor, she went inside to the little room which she occupied after her husband’s death, leaving the larger room to Narayan and Uma. Narayan then sat beside his wife, and with meticulous palm strokes, wiped the tears and kohl from Uma’s cheeks. After dinner, he picked her up in front of his mother, and placed her on the cot.

Shashibala woke up later in the night to the sound of muffled screams and the creakings of the rusty cot. She rolled over on her mat, but sleep did not come. Sweating, she went out of the house through the backdoor and made her bed in the grass beside the well. She woke up again when the sun sprayed its first rays onto her eyes. She tried to get in through the backdoor, but this time she heard shrieks again: shrieks of tender joy, and gasps of ecstasy, both of Uma and Narayan. This time they were not muffled, and rose above the pathetic periodic creaking of the cot.

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SAGNIK DATTA had been working as a Software Developer in Hyderabad, India, but has now left his job to pursue his writing interests. His works have appeared (or are forthcoming) in:Eunoia Review, eFiction India, After The Pause, Right Hand Pointing, and Ranar.

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