This excerpt from Mimi Mondal’s fiction appears as a part of a series featuring fellows in the New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program. Read Mimi’s essay about her relationship with language here.
The police raid on Wednesday morning had unsettled us all. The house of Jahar is not for the eyes of the day. Gods would be turned back from our door before sundown, but the police had intercepted our entrance, dragged Buri Ma from her sleep, forced their way into the jewel and the poison with no interference at all.
As we were hauled into the courtyard for questioning, I noticed with bleary-eyed horror how everything was derelict and falling apart. There were drink stains on the tables and cracks on the marble floor. The velvet of the walls was moth-eaten and littered with rat droppings. The police had pried opened the windows, let in streams of sunlight, and violated the sanctity of our house.
They said they had discovered the corpse of Shrabon Ghosh at dawn, washed up by the river ten miles south of our house. His body was mutilated and several organs were missing. The police suspected that the Jahar ran a racket of illegal trade in organs. I had never heard of anything more preposterous.
The police inspector was fidgety, irritable. Not unusual behavior, I observed with satisfaction, for a man whose first encounter in the morning was with the face of Johuree. It is a calm face, stone-like, the left eye boring into your soul as the right eye stares, a stark, irisless white until light catches it at an angle. You have to be a man of strong constitution to stay put in your seat as that right eye of Johuree glitters at you in the dark recesses of the Jahar. That eye has given nightmares to many an inconsiderate patron.
This morning, however, Johuree was the epitome of solicitousness.
“Radhamadhob Johuree, saar,” he seamlessly provided. “Humble servant and the owner of this place.”
Radhamadhob, I noted. Never heard that one before.
This, too, was news.
“Where are you originally from, Johuree Babu?”
“Born in Surat, saar, but my parents were members of a travelling circus. Majestic Oriental Circus, saar, though now no more. Family home in the Jalpaiguri district, saar. Never married. No issue.”
“I see. And why, may I ask, is your eye like that?” The policeman seemed to have been itching to ask the question.
“It’s a diamond, saar. Lost my eye when I was ten, saar, poked out with a stick by another boy at the circus.” He added with a servile whine, “It’s the only indulgence I have, saar. You cannot arrest a man for wearing a diamond.”
Indeed, you couldn’t. The inspector turned his attention to the Twins.
Contrary to first impression, you can actually tell the Twins apart from one another. Sascha is the one that is blond, blue-eyed and pale-skinned on the left half of the body, and dark-skinned, green-eyed and with half a head of brown curls on the right. Elia is the mirror opposite. Their bodies are slender, androgynous; their movements silent and graceful, like all good acrobats’ should be.
Two pairs of identically mismatched eyes stared up at the police inspector as he demanded, “And what are these?”
With a leap, Johuree was right by the policeman’s side.
“Oh, they are children, saar! Do not frighten them, I beseech you! They’ve never stepped outside this house, never known anything except the circus tricks I’ve taught them myself! Strangers scare the lives out of them, saar, they’re not used to the ways of the outside world!”
“How old are they?”
“Sixteen, saar, but—”
“And do they have names?”
“Sascha and Elia Mendel, saar,” Johuree eagerly provided for the inspector’s notebook.
“Are you aware, Johuree Babu, that one needs a license to employ foreigners in this country?”
“But they’re not truly foreigners, saar,” Johuree whined. “Their father came from overseas but he spent his life at our circus—he had belonged more to this land than any other man! Oh, old man Mendel was a brother to me, saar! Before he died, I promised him that I would look after his little orphans, and I’ve been carrying out my word since that day!”
“Would you care to explain why they look like that?” The policeman was beginning to look vaguely embarrassed.
“Oh, they suffer from a rare kind of melanoma, saar! I have tried so many treatments, but all have been in vain! Would it please you to see the doctors’ prescriptions, saar? No?” He continued the highly theatrical act. “Therefore I have trained them and put them up on the stage, for what other livelihood was left for these poor children of mine? We entertainers are miserable souls who must peddle their oddities for rice. It is a life of ignominy, saar, what can I tell you?”
The deluge had its effect, for the police inspector quickly escaped to me. A look of triumph sprouted as his eyes settled on my face.
“You, madam, have a scar under your eye.”
I smirked. “And I suppose my brain has been leached out through it and sold off?”
The look of triumph vanished as the policeman blushed. “Will you tell me how you came to have such a scar, Miss . . . ?”
“Prothoma Shundori Debi!” Johuree’s grin over the shoulder of the policeman assured me he approved of the improvisation.
“Teenage. Stepmother. Tried to carve my eyes out while I was asleep. Reason why I ran away and became a cabaret singer, didn’t I?”
“How long ago did this take place?”
“If you’re asking me to reveal my age, I will let you know that you won’t have it! Does joining the police force absolve men of every vestige of courtesy?”
The policeman made an expression that I have only seen on the faces of puppies hit with a broomstick on a winter morning. He moved on to Noru, who was waiting as a figure of stolid rage.
“Naiwrit Ray. Guard and bouncer.”
“Not a clue. Can’t read, never had ’em papers.”
“And where do you hail from, Naiwrit Babu?”
“Which part exactly?”
“Village called Shagorhati. In the Sundarbans.”
I have no doubt that story contained as much truth as the rest of ours. Noru Ray has never come across to me as a village bumpkin. I wondered what other interesting detail I would learn this morning.
The policeman wanted to know where all of us had been the night before, when each of us last saw Shrabon Ghosh, details of everything we did.
“We were all in the house,” Johuree spoke. “The Jahar was open—we work on Tuesdays and Saturdays—and Tuesdays are Prothoma Shundori’s turn to perform. On both days, the Twins do a set of acrobatics before the main act. At the stroke of midnight, they return to their rooms and go to bed. I make sure of it personally.
“When the Jahar is open, I spend the entire night there. I manage the bar, while also keeping an eye on the performances. Noru spends the early hours showing in the guests from the entrance above. Afterward, he stands guard at the door, makes sure everyone is nice and friendly. Last night was no different in any of these regards. You may check with any of our patrons. Since you have learned how to make your way into the Jahar, no doubt you know where to find some of them.”
The policeman ignored the bait. “Tell me all you can remember about the deceased from last night.”
“Shrabon performed on Saturday nights. On every other night, he went to bed right after dinner. Last night, after all of us ate together, he retired to his room. The Twins and Prothoma Shundori went back to their rooms as well, but to dress and return for their performances. I made my way to the bar, and Noru went up the stairwell to receive any early guest. Buri Ma had left after serving us dinner; she prefers to eat her meals alone in her shanty. That was the last any of us saw of Shrabon.
“At daybreak, when Prothoma Shundori, Noru and I returned after shutting down the bar, Shrabon had not yet come downstairs. But we did not find that unusual. Even for a morning person, as he was, barely after sunrise in winter is too early to be out of bed. His doors were shut, as were the Twins’. We also went off to sleep, until you and your men turned up making a ruckus.”
“We found two beds in the room where the deceased lived,” the policeman said. “Who shared that room with him?”
“Why, that would be our Noru!” Johuree wailed, as if taken aback by this revelation.
All eyes turned to our skulking bouncer. The policeman asked him, “Did you find Shrabon Ghosh in his bed when you returned to the room, Naiwrit Babu?”
“No,” Noru shrugged. “But I didn’t waste my breath on it. Maybe he was out performing his ablutions. Maybe he had gone for a walk. Shrabon Ghosh was a grown man, and you don’t expect people to float with their guts out in the river every day. As for me, I was thankful for the peace and quiet. I got into my bed and fell asleep immediately.”
“Shrabon Ghosh was no friend of yours, I presume?”
“He was a giggling twerp.”