A History of Burning

Janika Oza

May 5, 2023 
The following is from Janika Oza's debut novel A History of Burning. Oza is the winner of the 2022 O. Henry Prize for Short Fiction, and the 2020 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Award. She has received support from The Millay Colony, Tin House Summer and Winter Workshops, VONA/Voices of Our Nation, and the One Story Summer Writers’ Conference, and her stories and essays have appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2019 Anthology, Catapult, The Adroit Journal, and Prairie Schooner, among others.

Sonal, 1917

Sonal eyed her daughters from the outdoor hearth down the lane from their home. Blue tongues of fire licked her bare arms as she slapped a bhakri over the flame. The ground beneath her chappals was littered with foil candy wrappers, the marketplace reclaimed from the swamps. She shifted her squat, the weight of her thickening belly grinding down on her knees.

The girls were playing war with the neighbors’ children, hollering and kicking up red dust. A fair-skinned boy had smudged charcoal under his eyes and shouldered a niimu branch like a rifle. Some of the other girls were clasping their fists and crying, playing abandoned wives, but Sonal’s two girls had tied Pirbhai’s handkerchiefs around their heads like nurses. Her eldest, Sarita, was smoothing a paste of mud over another child’s calf, the flick of her wrists reminiscent of Sonal’s own hands as she worked. Sonal chuckled. Sarita was practically born in the pharmacy, and now at ten years old she was methodical, attuned to the smallest shifts in the wind. But not Varsha. Sonal watched now as her younger daughter tore the kerchief from her hair and stamped it into the dirt, then grabbed for the rifle in the boy’s arms. The boy jabbed the branch into her flat chest and yelled, DSHOOM.

“Mumma!” Varsha screamed, clutching her heart as if a wound really bloomed there. The smell of burnt lott surged. Sonal pushed to her feet, but the bulk of her belly rocked her back and the ground swam. Inside her, the baby kicked in protest. When her vision settled, she saw that Sarita had already collected Varsha in her arms, covering her sticky hair with kisses. She glanced at Sonal with a stern eye that seemed to say, you stay there.

Sonal sighed. Most days she couldn’t believe she had another one on the way. Their room was stuffed full, partitioned from the next family only by a row of shorn gunnysacks pinned to the ceiling. Between sending money back to Sonal’s parents in Kisumu and to Pirbhai’s family in Porbandar, they had barely enough for themselves. But Pirbhai was adamant that they send money to his mother every month, his brow furrowed as he slowly drafted the letters. The previous month he had sent a little extra to support the marriage of his youngest sister; though he was often private about what he wrote in his letters—out of modesty or embarrassment at his fledgling script, Sonal wasn’t sure—this time he’d asked Sonal how to write many happy returns of the day. “Our girls matter too,” Sonal had snapped, but she too felt the tether of her siblings’ lives.

It was mere weeks after Varsha’s birth when the neighbors began bringing around ghee-soaked gund pak rolled with poppy seeds to encourage the womb to conceive a boy. Sonal had thanked the doting kakis, then buried the sweets in the yard. They never spoke of it, but Pirbhai seemed to agree that they would stop trying. Maybe when things are easier, they thought. After we get our land, Pirbhai once said. This pregnancy, years later, came as a surprise. But Sonal caught the glitter of hope in Pirbhai’s eye when she told him, the shine that only the prospect of a boy could elicit.

She dusted ash from her fingertips. The fair-skinned boy had abandoned his gun and was squatted beneath the matunda vine with the rest of the children, playing seven stones. What good was it to bring a boy into this world? It was wartime. Sonal had watched boys with skin as hairless as babies heading to the front line in Tanganyika, looking like mules laden with their tin debe and sleeping bag. Maybe once, a boy child meant permanence, continuity, but now it meant only heartbreak.

Sonal tucked the bhakri into her kikapu, brimming with leaves and berries she’d collected to brew dawa, and signaled to her girls that she was heading home. She passed the whitewashed walls of the pharmacy, a chalky replica of the buildings in the European quarters, marked with shaky English letters that read DRUG-STOR. Behind it, Kampala’s hills rose high, their dense neighborhood hidden between their verdant folds. A mzee on a bicycle sped past, the air in his wake scented like salted groundnuts. She paused to retch into the bush before realizing she was ravenous. When she reached the stoop of their home, the women gathered out front shuffled to make room, clucking at her sweaty cheeks and pulling the kikapu from her arms.

“It’s peak sun, Sonal, come sit,” Meena said, dabbing her hairline with her dupatta.

Sonal obliged, her knees on fire. The women could often be found here in the afternoons, taking refuge from the heat and their responsibilities for a few moments of gossip and cane juice. Afiya, who Sonal had first met at the pharmacy when her son had malaria, pulled a guava from her wrapper and held it out. Only once Sonal had swallowed the pulpy flesh, scraping the skin until no white remained, could she speak.

“This baby thinks I’m a rich woman,” she said. “Always wanting me to eat.”

Afiya laughed and spat her own guava peel into the dirt. “You’re looking low. Surely a boy.”

“Ndiyo, girls always sit higher in the womb, closer to the heart,” Shilpa kaki said.

“Let’s just hope your husband is around to see him,” Meena said.

Sonal cocked her head. The sun poured over her face and she squinted to see Meena’s mouth forming a grim line. “Where would he go?”

Meena exchanged a glance with the others. “The compulsory service order for all men in Uganda, na? Announced today.”

Sonal spun to the group, bewildered. Their faces were poised between tired and pitying. Afiya’s husband had voluntarily enlisted earlier that year, Meena’s husband would be above the age limit, and Shilpa kaki was widowed. Sonal shivered with the sickening realization that Pirbhai might leave them. Shilpa kaki brushed her knuckles over Sonal’s belly straining against her kurta. “You’ll have us all here to help you,” she said.

Sonal stared at the pharmacy across the lane, where Pirbhai was surely restocking the shelves or tending to a customer. The sickly sweet taste of guava scorched her throat. Though the British were fighting the Germans, most of the soldiers were Africans and Indians, so it was really kin being made to fight kin. Devastating their own land and people for a war whose outcome didn’t matter: it was domination either way. As far as she was concerned, there was no need to participate in a battle that wasn’t theirs. But she knew Pirbhai would see it differently, not as his war but his duty, an extension of something he had long ago begun. His loyalty to their family had kept him from enlisting thus far, but she knew he wouldn’t resist if they came for him.

“He’s too sick,” she said. Pirbhai’s body had never recovered from toiling on the railroad, the details of which he still rarely spoke of. But his lungs crackled all night like an ill-tuned radio, and his limp had grown more pronounced each year. Sonal brewed medicines specifically for his combination of ailments, boiling ajmo into his morning tea and massaging his legs with a mixture of roots and herbs every night. Between her time working at the pharmacy and the years spent watching her mother concoct her remedies, she knew what fed pain and what softened it, what cooled the body and what could drive it into a hot, unrelenting fever.

“You’re right, the recruiters will see that,” Meena said, though her expression was more of mercy than belief.

Sonal stood abruptly. Pricks of white light clouded her eyes, but she stilled herself and turned to the door. “Tell my girls to come soon, hanh?” She didn’t bother to look at their faces as she hauled herself up the steps, waving away the hands that reached out to steady her.

Sonal sent Sarita out to collect what she needed for a new medicine, describing the markings on the leaves and the red shine of the berries in precise detail. She knew exactly what to do, and it surprised her how easy it was to brew harm rather than healing. By the time Pirbhai returned, Sonal had steeped the herbs in oil, stripped the twigs of their bark, and boiled the berries to a bloody mush. Now the room smelled sweet and grassy, the balm waiting in a scooped-out tin of Zam-Buk, because despite all that Sonal had learned about medicines, Pirbhai still preferred the official treatments sold at the pharmacy, the ones stamped and sealed in English.

Varsha was sliding rice around the plate when Pirbhai arrived. She flew toward him and smeared yellow dal on his pants. Pirbhai tickled her chin, but her velocity seemed to throw him off balance, and his left foot dragged as he ambled to the mat.

Sarita nudged the plate forward. “Pappa looks hungrier today,” she said.

Sonal swiped a dot of mango athanu from Sarita’s cheek. So young, and already taking care of her parents. Sonal felt a pull of gratitude for her eldest daughter, who would surely help when the baby came, especially if Pirbhai were gone. She pressed a fist to her ribs to still the nausea. It wouldn’t happen, she reminded herself. He would go nowhere—she’d make sure of it.

Pirbhai plucked at the charred edge of a bhakri and licked the crumbs from his thumb. “Fit for a queen,” he murmured, pushing it across the plate toward Sarita. Sonal shook her head. It was something he had begun doing when the cost of food rose with the war, pretending he was full although his stomach caved in.

Sarita adjusted an imaginary crown. Some days Pirbhai told the girls they were descended from maharajas, other days that his ancestors were warriors, dancers, cooks. In truth, Sonal didn’t know what to believe. She had found the scroll of paper that he had carried from the railroad to Kisumu to Kampala, and read it while he was out. It was a copy of the colonists’ ledger prepared on Pirbhai’s arrival in Mombasa, detailing his years under contract to work. But whoever had filled it out had mistaken his first name for his full name—First Name: PIR / Surname: BHAI—and thus erased his family name from existence. He seemed to have absorbed the mistake into his persona.

Pirbhai prodded at a peanut in the sweet-corn shaak.

“Eat na, before I finish everything. This baby is hungry, I tell you,” Sonal said.

Pirbhai smiled, though he made no move. “That’s my boy. Eat up.” Sonal eyed him. The work caught up with him some days, though he’d never say so. “Ja, lie down. I’ll keep you some batata aside for later.” Her breath was quickening, the baby flipping inside her giddily. She trained her eyes on her daughters. “I’m going to give dawa to your pappa. He needs his rest tonight. You don’t stand up until this whole

plate is empty.” Varsha pouted, Sarita nodded solemnly.

On the mattress, Pirbhai had removed his shirt and was knuckling his chest through his faded singlet. Sonal approached with the pot of Zam-Buk. She’d added some mint at the last minute to mask the smell, but the perfume hadn’t sunk in. If he was tired enough, he might not notice.

He grunted as she began to work the balm into his leg. Sonal bore down into her knuckles, pushing deep, oiling the place between muscle and bone. Pirbhai’s eyes fluttered closed.

“Nanu’s still refusing marriage. My sisters wrote to me asking that I speak to him,” Sonal said, aiming to distract.

Pirbhai chortled. “Your brother’s married to the shop. In his next life he’ll be a rat in the storage room.”

Sonal tutted her tongue. “He can’t only work. It’s lonely, na?” “Word got out about the pharmacy’s headache remedy. People

coming all from the African and Asian quarters now. A line around the block.”

On a normal day Sonal might raise the fact that she was constantly tending to neighbors arriving at their door for her home-brewed medicines—tick bites, heartaches, babies who refused their mother’s milk, she had seen it all. But today she said nothing. The paste slipped into the cracked skin around her nails and burned. Already her fingertips were growing numb.

“We’re doing well here,” Pirbhai said. He spoke sluggishly, as if already asleep.

Sonal sniffed. In a way, this was a dream. Them together, their little life. It’s all she had hoped for: a small place for her family, on stable ground, without debts. The herby scent flooded her nose as she worked, floral and bright like Kisumu’s trees, like the sting of her father’s slap, like her own mother’s fingers spreading crushed leaves over her wounds. She felt it then, the power of her mother, what she had hoped to heal by sending Sonal away. Sonal rubbed in the medicine that would weaken Pirbhai’s body and understood what it took to take care of a family. I see now, Mummy, she wanted to say.

Pirbhai’s eyes shuttled back and forth in a dizzied sleep. Sonal wiped her hands on her dupatta and blew cool air over his cheeks. “Just for now,” she whispered, “until they’re gone.” He wouldn’t survive a war. Sonal had seen his face when men in the market spoke of the troops walking hundreds of miles bearing heavy loads, when they brought news of lives lost and villages burned. No doubt his body wouldn’t carry him through, but the true battle was in his mind. She could see that deep within him he wanted to stand up and claim his fight; that he believed he had something to prove. But his determination to measure up threatened to overtake his good senses. This was for the best, a temporary pain for a life undisturbed.

She crossed to the kitchen, where her daughters were swatting at one another with the fugyo. The baby was calm, and Sonal drummed her belly with numb fingertips, whispering to him her secret, her action that was her love. She whispered: Let them come.

Let the recruiters see her, bloated with pregnancy, her daughters, rail-thin and mewling, the shared lot of their home. Let them see her husband, numbed from the knees down, unable to walk, unable to prove what he believed he could do.

Let them come. They would think him incurable, and they would leave. They would come looking for potential, and find none. But they wouldn’t look close enough, their attention turned only to him. If they kept looking, they might see hers.


From A History of Burning by Janika Oza. Used with permission of the publisher, Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Janika Oza.

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