Fiction: The Wounds of Sun Time

by Parul Kapur Hinzen ’89SOA Published Winter 2013-14
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Illustrations by Sterling Hundley

>> For an interview with the author: www.magazine.columbia.edu/fiction

The day unfolds to a different rhythm when you come this far east in India. A gray light seeps across the sky at around this time, a quarter past five in the morning, bringing back the simple shapes of things. I have the illusion, standing up here on the verandah, peering at the trees that are inky silhouettes and the wild shrubs that are black walls blurred with mist, that I’m seeing the earth as it was in the beginning: dark, peaceful, and absolutely still. Coming to Assam, I feel like I’ve migrated to another country, though this is still India. This is the same country I was born in, just the opposite end of it, two thousand miles from Punjab. The blue hills of Burma stand on the horizon, and there’s a touch of China in people’s faces, in their eyes. Yet everything seems far away, the noises of the world muffled by the forest.

This is the time of day I like best, the air soft and cool, free of the dirty whiffs of petrol and tar the evening breeze carries, especially when you’re down in the market near the refinery. The other day, as I stood here having a beer after office, a flashing cloud of flame appeared in the distance, behind the rain tree that rises up on the hill across the road. For a moment I thought it was a view of the chimney I can see from the General Office, the gold flame so much bigger that I was afraid a fire had broken out in the refinery. It took me a moment to realize it was a trick of light, the glare of the setting sun splintering and flickering through the sprawl of tree limbs, not a blaze of oil and gas. We chase the sun with our timings here, trying to capture the most light, our clocks turned an hour ahead of the rest of the country. Normally I’ve had my bed tea by now, since office starts promptly at 6:00 a.m.

Since I’m one of the few Indians who owns a car, privileged with a company loan, it’s only a few minutes’ drive back. Some of the older engineers and scientists, the ones who started at Assam Petroleum before independence, when the British called them “Indian assistants,” show a slight resentment toward me. They joke about my staying in the British settlement in the hills, looking down on ordinary mortals like them on the plain. Many of them live in cottages around the oil field and get around town on bicycles. Though the refinery operates around the clock, the General Office closes at 3:00 p.m., since my British colleagues like to end the day on the golf course or tennis courts. Many of us younger Indian managers like to join them on the sports field — I enjoy a game of squash at the club — so it was troubling to hear of a sign posted outside the Digboi Club right up to 1947, eleven years ago, when we won independence: “INDIANS AND DOGS NOT ALLOWED.”

Someone pulls and scrapes a door latch behind me. My housemate Varinder steps out of his bedroom, already dressed in a shirt and tie. He raises his head abruptly, not expecting to find me here in the dark. “What happened to him? Why hasn’t he brought the tea till now?”

“Three times I’ve called down, but there’s been no reply,” I tell him, feeling annoyed again that no one has come to explain the delay, neither the bearer, Suraj Ali, nor the cook or the other two houseboys.

Varinder snaps open the tin of Three Castles in his hand, offers me a cigarette. Though I’ve done my shave, too, waiting for the tea to be brought up, I feel untidy beside him in my crumpled pajamakurta. We’re both at the General Office, Varinder in administration, around the corner from accounts.

Walking across the wide verandah to the back staircase, he calls down in a tone of easy command, “Suraj Ali! Chalo, Suraj Ali, chai lao!” Suraj Ali, bring the tea! Varinder continues gazing down the back stairway the servants use to carry things up from the kitchen, which occupies a separate shed in the rear of the garden. He turns to me with a look of dismay. “He must have gotten drunk last night. Must be passed out in his room.”

A shrill whooping shears the silence, startling both of us. Varinder spots it first, joining me at the verandah rail. “It’s there — in the pomelo.”

I shift my gaze to the tree by the gate. The sky has paled some. In the masses of clustered black leaves I see the shadow of a hornbill before it launches itself in the air. The sweep of its beak rises as its body springs upward. “Oh, yes,” I say. It’s a rare bird to catch sight of. I’ve seen it only two or three times in the sixteen months I’ve been in Digboi. The tribals hunt it for its spectacular beak, with which they decorate their hats. Varinder has suggested a trip down to the Naga villages. I’d like to make a group and just travel somewhere for the weekend, the way we did a few months back, piling into two cars and driving up the Ledo Road through steep mountains all the way to the Burma border. But the two longer holidays I’ve taken since I joined the Assam Petroleum Company were both spent in Delhi, seeing my parents.

I remain standing at the rail after Varinder goes inside, fed up with the servant’s lack of response. A cycle rattles clumsily up the road, making a loud clicking noise as it passes the house, and I begin to feel impatient again. I still have to take a bath, send my shoes down for polishing. The siren will go off at five thirty, warning there’s half an hour left till office starts. Everybody up! Eight times a day the hooter wails, marking shift changes at the refinery and the General Office hours. Is Suraj in such a stupor he can’t hear the deer now barking in the forest like quarreling dogs? I walk across the dusty floor and shout down the back stairs, “Suraj Ali! Suraj! Kya hogaya, bhai?” What’s going on?

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