Fiction from Anu Kumar

Photo: Yiqun Tang

The City’s Last Mill 

The city’s last cotton mill was aging rapidly. Already its roof was spliced in half, windows in empty sheds stood bare with an old man’s toothless grin. Rubble gathered in new places every time the demolition team pulled down buildings that no longer fitted into plan. On other days, mongrels and rag pickers played on the rubble heap.

Only the factory’s spire stood tall, a faithful watchman ever on guard. Except for the wizened gooseberry creeper that had painstakingly inched its way to the very top, the spire talked to no one. For years it had stood by wearing its fine hat of gooseberry leaves, watching the advancing tide of desolation.

One day, the demolition men turned up again. They stood around the spire, making earnest notes on dog-eared pads. Later that night, the creeper warned its spire friend, “It’s your turn, I fear.” And the next day, trucks ferried in shovel-wielding, pickaxe-armed workers. Now the creeper trembled and the spire in turn reassured, “Stay calm, they cannot harm us.” The spire didn’t really understand, but standing tall and still, in all weather, in every situation, was all it had ever done. So from somewhere it found a small spiral of smoke and whiffed in reply.

The workers, paid hourly rates, wasted not a moment. They formed a quick circle and stood, ready to strike at a given signal. Thunk. A thin white scratch appeared on the old spire wall, and the creeper felt the spire’s wince. The creeper gritted its teeth and held tight. Thuck. then Whack. 

A pause from the men to wipe the sweat away, and then again: Thaad. Thunk. Whack. The rag pickers collected, the mongrels moaned in sadness, and the sun paused overhead. It saw the spire’s resistance, heard the creeper’s whispers of encouragement, “Hold on, friend.”

A little while later, the sun saw too how the creeper bent lower to croon, “There now, they have stopped for lunch.” The spire, already marked by deep dents, fine scratches, was glad of the short respite. The sun too waited, and when the workers returned, it turned on the full wrath of its heat. In minutes, the sweat ran in profuse streams down bare backs, yet the workers cursed and went on till they could bear no more. “Oh heavenit’s too much, this heat…”

The furious contractor sent in two bulldozers next. The spire quailed, the creeper shivered on seeing them appear. And in the space of one night, the mill gathered even more scars. The rubble had spread all over; long toppled bricks, fine glass shards, old rusted pipes, and wires twisted out of shape covered every inch of barren ground. The dozers advanced, wheels shrieking, grinders bared and watering at the sight of so much to be broken down. But the more they gulped in, the more appeared left over. The drivers swore, reversed, advanced again and again, but soon the wheels stumbled and stalled on the rubble, unable to advance.

The din pushed itself into the minds of people, some still not frozen into apathy. They removed the cotton from their ears and decided, “Something has to be done.” Letters appeared in influential city newspapers. A historic mill, a precious heritage is in danger of losing its life. Is the heritage committee sleeping?

A reader filed a litigation chastising authorities for endangering a heritage site. Another litigation alleged the municipality was subverting laws to favor builders. And in air-conditioned television studios, activists and experts threatened to expose the builder lobbies, “They are intent on setting up high-rises. Do they know the strain on the city’s infrastructure?”

“Nonsense,” cried the builders, but the judges also refused to listen. The laws are being flouted, the government should stop the city’s breakdown, it ruled. The government meekly complied; after all, elections were near. The creeper broke the news to the spire quietly, because it had already been through so much. The sun too was gentle the next day. By noon, it had retreated behind dark clouds, and the rains came down, turning the creeper a brilliant shade of green, its tears painting the old gray walls, wiping every scratch mark away.

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Anu Kumar is a graduate of the MFA Program in Writing (fiction) from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Numéro Cinq, Aerogram and other places. Her novel, The Language of Longing, is due February 2019 from Speaking Tiger Books, India.

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