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SPARK » Aimee Fullman and Urmilla Khanna

Aimee Fullman and Urmilla Khanna


Aimee Fullman
“Juicy Chicken”
Response

A Juicy Chicken
By Urmilla Khanna
Inspiration piece

Year 1955

When the Passenger train crunched its brakes and stopped at Deori, a small village in Chattisgarh, India, several passengers climbed into the crowded third-class compartment. The train was fairly empty when I boarded it in my home-town Raipur for my eight hour journey to Medical School in Nagpur. I was able to get a good corner seat and tuck my trunk securely under my bench. At every stop, however, crowds were piling in; men, women, children, umbrellas, bundles of possessions, surais filled with water and tiffin-carriers with aromatic curries.

Amidst the new-comers in Deori was a diminutive woman, her nine-yard sari tight around her waist and hips. I looked up from the magazine on my lap and we made a brief eye-contact. The woman had come with a basket balanced on her head. The basket, covered with thin muslin, had six or eight chickens with their feet tied so they would not escape. She made her way to my booth and stood before me, chickens and all. She folded her hands, lowered her shoulders slightly and begged that I allow her to slip beneath my bench. I gave her a friendly smile, got my sandals out of the way and made room for her. She pushed my trunk to the far side of the berth and disappeared under my seat rearranging my carry-on bag and other small items around her. Her chicken made an occasional kut-kut sound but were mostly silent. The train took off and all was well.

When the Ticket Collector made his rounds, I handed him my ticket. As he was punching it there was a soft kut-kut. TC’s ears perked up. He located the source of the kut-kut and searched under my seat. The woman emerged, smelling of stale sweat, coal and dust. Clutching her basket, she stood before the TC, her chin up to meet his gaze. She was short and he was tall. Her sari, that may have been maroon when new, had turned brown with impregnated dirt and grime, a sharp contrast to the TC’s starched white trousers and a blue and white cap with a stately logo IR, Indian Railway, embroidered on the rim.

The toothless woman gave a pleading gesture, lowering herself to touch the officer’s feet.

“It will never happen again,” she said in the vernacular.
“But you must buy a ticket every time you travel,” he scowled. “You know it is illegal to travel without a ticket.”

She said she understood but did not have money. She begged that she not be fined for an offence so meager. Or worse still, be thrown out of the carriage.

“It will never happen again, sir” she implored. “My market is in Bhandara, just a couple stops away. I’ll definitely get off in the next hour or two. By evening when I have sold my chickens I will have money.”

The officer stood still for a moment deciding his next move, his eyes resting on the basket.

The woman removed the muslin cover and the chickens came alive. “Take this one, Sir. Very healthy and very juicy,” she said lifting a bird from the basket and holding it up to him. The bird clucked and fluttered, shedding its downy feathers all around. The TC’s eyes widened and his lips curled into a faint smile. He took the bird, shoved it under his arm and walked away in silence.

Fears abated, the woman squatted squarely in the narrow floor-space between the opposing berths of my compartment, the remaining chicken safely tucked under the seat.

“Sala, haramzada” she mumbled loud enough for her audience to hear. “These rich rascals have no shame and no pity for the poor. What did he do for me? Nothing! The train was going to pass through Bhandara anyway.”

The train chugged along slowly, spewing smoke and particles of live charcoal. I gazed out the window. The farmland was dry and barren. Cows, exhausted from heat had settled in the minimal shade of an occasional tree that swept by. Poverty was visible everywhere.

In Bhandara when the woman got off the train, she did not exit via the front gate, another check-point for tickets. She could not afford to lose another chicken. She hurried across the tracks and through the railway yard, her bowed rickety legs stumbling over each other. In minutes she was gone, leaving me nothing but memories.

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