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16 October 2014
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Susmita Bhattacharya
Susmita Bhattacharya

Susmita Bhattacharya grew up in Mumbai, India. She graduated in Art and worked as a graphic designer. She got married in Calcutta and then sailed around the world with her husband for three years, writing and painting, before dropping anchor in Singapore for a couple of years. She is now doing her M.A. in Creative Writing at the Cardiff University.

Meeting Munni by Susmita Bhattacharya

The bus crunched to a halt, and Margaret was jolted out of her sleep. A moment of confused silence, then the passengers began to grumble and squirm. She looked out of the window. The white heat of the afternoon flashed back at her. Desperate to stretch her legs and escape the crush of sweaty passengers, she got off the bus.

Margaret was travelling the well-worn route to the Taj Mahal. Having just gone through a painful divorce, she thought this was the solution to heal the pain: the further away from home she went, the quicker she’d get over it. Perhaps it was true. Or was it the jumbled, old-fangled non-stop tour of India that didn’t give her time enough to brood? Most of the time, she was looking out for herself, and tackle each day as it came. This time, the bus had broken down, and they’d have to wait till the driver fixed it. As she looked around, the shaded interiors of a chai-shop enticed her towards it. It could hardly be called a shop: a battered table and few plastic chairs, a black kettle boiling on a stove, a row of inedible looking edibles in glass jars, all this within mud walls and a thatched roof.

The scorching sun sucked every bit of energy from her. So she hoped to revive herself with some strong chai. The chai-wallah glanced at her and wiped a spot on the table, indicating where she ought to take a seat. She ordered a masala- chai. She was not sure if visiting the Taj was such a good idea. They had planned that trip for their honeymoon, but never went. Not enough money, he said. There was never enough money. That had been the problem. No money to buy a house. No money to have a baby. Four jobs between the two of them, and yet they struggled. Till Margaret found out there never had been a second job. And there was a baby… only it wasn’t her’s.

A chair scraped aside next to her. Margaret looked. A man sat there and smiled at her. A shadow came over them, and a huge bear pulled up another chair. Startled, Margaret choked on her tea and spluttered.

“Oh no, sister,” the man shot up, balancing the large turban on his head. “This is Munni… very polite bear, she make no trouble. We sit here many times. Munni like to eat biscuits.”

The chai–wallah rushed up to her. “Please, madam. They are regular customers. But I can ask them to leave.”

“Oh…”Margaret looked embarrassed. “It’s okay then.” She smiled at the concerned bear-wallah, and Munni sat down, squashing her big body into the tiny chair. She eyed the goodies in the glass jars and her muzzle quivered in response.

“So sorry, Memsahib. Let me introduce. She is Munni, the dancing bear of Agra. Look how she is stylish. Like proper Bollywood heroine. She memsahib bear, only understand English.” The bear-wallah’s chest expanded as he jabbered on. Munni scrutinised her red painted claws and yawned. She was dressed in a blue frock and had a fine collection of beads around her neck. Her bristly skin had been brushed and oiled till it shone and through her plunging neckline, shone a soft patch of golden hair. The strong rose perfume was quite inefficient in camouflaging her pungent bear smell. She batted her eyelids at Margaret from under her straw hat.

Margaret felt a giggle tickle her throat. She swallowed and said, “You speak very good English.”

“Yes, yes. I learning from American tourist. For Munni is foreigner. She is from China.”

He looked so serious and proud Margaret could not laugh on his face. Surely, a Chinese bear would need to understand Chinese, not English. She looked at this wizened old man, dark and rough as a cinnamon bark. The turban balanced adamantly on his tiny head, his moustache well oiled and suspiciously black. Margaret presumed they both used the same oils for grooming.

“But memsahib, Munni have sad life before I save her. Her old master beat her and not feed her. Always hungry. Always crying, my daughter, Munni.” Tears sprung to his eyes. Munni ambled up to him, her dress rustling against her bristly body and put her snout in his lap. He stroked it absently and blew his nose. “Some bearwallah not love their bears. Only think of money, memsahib, and not for bear. Look…”
He pushed Munni’s snout towards Margaret. Her snout was bent and scarred. Margaret touched it, but the bear jerked back and growled. The bearwallah held her head firmly and whispered in her ear. Munni eased back and concentrated on the biscuit in the bearwallah’s hand.

“See,” he whispered. “Still so scared. She think you beat her soon. But don’t worry, memsahib, I tell her you good lady. Not bad man like her old master. He break her nose to make holes and get the ropes through. I never beat her. She like my daughter, no?”

Margaret didn’t know how to react. She had never been in intimate terms with a bear before. Somehow, she felt comforted in Munni’s presence. She too knew what it was to hurt, to share a life with a bad partner. And look at Munni now, so happy and content. This man truly loved her. Margaret’s spirits lifted seeing the odd couple.

“Memsahib,” the man blushed. “Today is happy day for me.”

“Oh. Why is that?”

“A baby born for me today. My daughter after five sons,” he whispered. He looked at Munni and raised his voice. “My daughter number two,” he laughed. “Munni big sister today.” She twitched her ears and continued eating. “…And I am lucky today I see you. If you bless for her, she will be milk white like you. And get good husband.”

“Goodness, the baby is just a day old, and you are thinking of a husband?” Margaret admonished him.

“Aah yes, so important. Good husband make good life for woman. Otherwise she have lot of tears in eye.” He looked worried. “Will you bless for her, please?”

Margaret was touched. Here in this strange country, where bears sat on chairs and babies were betrothed at birth, someone was asking for her blessing. Munni ambled over and sat by her feet.

“But how will my blessing help? I am not a lucky person.” Margaret whispered.

“Oh, memsahib… how you can say such a thing? You are good health, and beautiful, I say with respect. I no see husband but, Munni telling me, you very lucky person. Not to feel sad, memsahib, no.”

Margaret looked at him and smiled. “Strange, it is both your new-born baby and me, who are in a great need of a good husband! I wish someone had blessed me when I was born.”

The man nodded his head. It was true, he said, the blessings from lucky or respectable elders were very essential to make a child’s future shine. The money made that entire week with Munni, would go on feasting and celebrations. The entire village would come and bless the child. “But,” the man added in a conspiring tone. “Memsahib, your blessing is important number one. My daughter be fair like you, and her husband is happy with her. And he no marry other wife to make my daughter cry.”

Margaret’s hands trembled as she took one manicured paw in her own. “Please take my blessings to the beautiful baby. Give her all the health, wealth and happiness in the land...and a good husband,” she added for good measure.

Munni sighed. The bearwallah hopped about in delight. His daughter’s future was sealed in this auspicious moment. He gathered his belongings and called to Munni. “We have a long way to go. Munni dance for sister and I have money for celebration tomorrow.”

“Let me give you a present for the baby,” Margaret reached for her purse.

“Oh no,” the bear-wallah cried. “I no take from you. You bless my daughter already. You do so much for her. My lucky daughter....”

He joined his hands in reverence and turned to leave. Munni folded her paws in a namaste, and then skipped along behind him, her ankle bells tinkling. Margaret’s gaze followed them till they got distorted in her tears.

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More from this writer:

Short Stories
Meeting Munni
The Prophecy

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