The Atlas

Trina sat cross-legged on a straw mat, a journal open on her lap. She pored over the atlas lying in front of her and squinted to read the name of the island that appeared like a teeny-weeny dot somewhere in the Pacific Ocean near Australia. A blotch of oil-mark, that seemed to have come from Grandma’s raw mango pickles, made the letters illegible.

The frayed atlas, like most of Trina’s clothes and books, was a hand-me-down from her thirteen-year-old cousin sister, Paramita. The clatter of steel utensils being washed in a neighbouring flat mingled with the notes of a hit Bollywood song that played on someone’s radio. Trina’s own noisy house was peaceful for a change.

With Ma at work, Grandma napping in the bedroom that Trina and her mother shared with her, and her uncle’s family off on a trip to explore the old forts and deserts in Rajasthan, the house belonged to Trina on the afternoons of her summer vacation. The veranda where she sat overlooked a tiny patch of garden where orangish red canna and lacy-white spider lilies bloomed; a hint of their sweet, spicy scent wafted by, every time a breeze swayed them from side to side. From time to time she jotted down something from the atlas. The list she’d made so far read: Angola, Turkey, Finland, Ukraine, New Zealand.

When school reopened, she’d hunt the library for books on those places. Though she’d have to rummage through the section meant for older girls, Trina knew their librarian, Mrs. Sinha, wouldn’t mind. Miss might even help her in the search and then share one of her homemade coconut cookies with her. Miss had a tin full of those cookies inside her drawer, but she’d asked Trina to keep it a secret. “These cookies are only for girls who love to read,” she’d whisper and take a bite and then brush the crumbs off her lips with her lacy handkerchief. “Most of them just come here to slink behind the cupboards and chat,” she’d shake her head and make a “tsk-tsk” sound.

Trina was treated kindly by most of the grownups she knew. She stood first in class. At eight, she was an advanced reader for her age who’d often talk about things like the history of India’s freedom struggle or the threat of extinction of the Royal Bengal tigers from the jungles of the Sundarbans. Even her aunt and uncle, who likely didn’t appreciate Trina and her mother crowding their already crammed two room apartment, spoke to their friends about their smart and bookworm niece with a certain pride.

Ironically, the same things that made adults like her, made her a weirdo to children her own age. Unlike her classmates, Trina wasn’t interested in stories about who had a crush on their brother’s friend or what the latest cut of jeans they wanted for their birthdays was. She thought it was more fun to read books than to play outside. She annoyed her classmates by reminding the teacher about homework and assignments. In truth, Trina experienced a certain solace from the pages of the books where the characters didn’t make fun of her. She found it comforting to be distracted by the routine of schoolwork which kept her mind off Baba for a while. She enjoyed searching for countries on the world map and reading up on those places. It was her dream to travel the world with Ma someday, a dream that she and Baba used to spend hours talking about before he died.


Trina and her mother had come to live at her uncle’s house about two years ago after her Baba passed away in an accident on the day of the prize distribution ceremony at Trina’s school. Ma had come down with the flu, so Baba took a leave from work to attend the function. The parents were supposed to come in by noon, when the program began. Trina was expecting to be among the top three students in class one. For days, she had been dreaming of the moment when she’d receive the first prize from the Principal while the audience erupted into applause. Her stomach flipped the same way it did during the roller coaster ride at Nicco Park.

As the parents settled down in the concert hall, Trina, in her well-pressed uniform and her polished Bata shoes, her hair neatly tied into two ponytails by Baba that morning, stood quivering with nervousness and anticipation. Her hands were clammy, and when the results started being announced, she felt an urge to pee. She stood backstage with the potential prize recipients and looked for her father but before she could locate him, the Principal announced, “The first prize in class one section A goes to Trina Chatterjee.”

Trina scampered to the stage and forgot to shake Sister Maria’s hand before grabbing the prize. Sister Katherine, the nun in charge of the choir group, frantically gestured from backstage, looking like a penguin flapping its wings. Trina clumsily clutched the Principal’s hand while she was still clapping and started pumping it vigorously. The audience broke into a laughter. Trina felt the warm glow of embarrassment redden her ears, but in a pleasant sort of way, like when Baba caught her stealing custard from the fridge in the middle of the night but instead of scolding her, brought over his own bowl and spoon to share the loot.

Trina searched for her father’s face among the laughing crowd—his black-rimmed glasses, the dimples that looked like a set of parentheses marking his cheeks, his spotless white shirt, the one he’d ironed the night before and kept ready for today.

She remained rooted on the stage long after the sound of clapping petered out. Her eyes desperately scanned the faces in the audience. Her hands remained aloft with the glittery paper wrapped prize. Finally, Sister Maria gently shoved her behind the curtain. The audience cracked up once more but this time their laughter felt like the pelting of stones. She decided to wait outside the concert hall. Even though she missed his face among the rows of sweaty-faced, eager-eyed adults, she was certain that her father must have cheered for her.

When the school compound grew almost empty as the last of the parents left with their kid in tow, Trina slumped on to the stairs and buried her face in her knees. The sound of the taxi screeching to a halt in front of the school’s gate made her lift her face. She quickly wiped her eyes and stood up, desperately praying to Jesus and Durga—the two gods she’d come to love, thanks to her Catholic convent school and her Bengali Hindu upbringing—that Baba would emerge out of it. To her bewilderment, the portly form of her uncle materialized instead. It was confusing because she only met her uncle’s family during festivals and special occasions. Trina waved at him, but he lowered his head.

Other than mentioning that Baba had to be suddenly hospitalized after suffering from a heart attack on the way to her school, uncle remained silent for the entire taxi ride back home.

Upon reaching her house, Trina rushed to her parents’ bedroom from where the sound of women crying poured out. It felt as if the neighbourhood dogs were howling in unison. She peeped inside and saw that all their relatives and neighbours had gathered around her mother.

Everyone was crying except for Ma, who intently scrapped the crimson polish off her toenails, a look of concentration puckering her face. A gray shawl was draped around her even though it was peak summer in Kolkata. She flinched whenever someone tried touching her and waved their bangled hands off her as if they contained some contagious diseases. Rita aunty tried to rub out the red vermillion from the parting of her hair. Ma flung her arm away with such force that aunty winced in pain.

Trina’s puny body stuck to the doorframe went unnoticed by the mourners. The faces around her were so strange that she felt like she was intruding someone else’s house and peeking into their personal moments. Even though uncle had only mentioned Baba’s heart attack, Trina was smart enough to fill in the blanks. The deluge of people, the cacophony of wails, and the buzz of conversations bubbling up like boiling milk, threatening to scald her, were enough for her to understand what might have happened.

“When is the dead body arriving?” Someone shouted from outside the room. Her father, the man who smelled of lemon scented soaps and black coffee, the man who’d knotted her tie that morning and secured her ponytails with blue ribbons, the man who’d caress her head when she couldn’t sleep, who’d tell her stories of travel and adventure, who’d keep her secrets and be her accomplice in harmless mischiefs, that man was now a “dead body”.

Trina wanted to run away from the noisy house, from the smell of the strong incense that made her eyes water, she wanted to go back in time and start over once again in the morning when her father woke her up with a minty toothpaste flavoured kiss on her forehead. Then she would ask him to stay at home and she too would miss school, and then everything would be the same once again. She would give up on all prizes for the rest of her life if that was what it took to get her father back.

When Trina finally took the few steps inside and sat down beside her mother, Ma stirred for the first time. The room went quiet. Ma pulled Trina into her lap and wrapped the shawl around both their bodies as if to ward off intruders. Ma’s fingers clawed into Trina’s upper arms as she tightly held her little body against her own that radiated with the heat of high fever.

Trina squirmed after a while—her hands ached, the heat made her uncomfortable, and the shrill sobbing of the aunties hurt her head. She pried open her mother’s grip and stood up. “Could you all please leave the room? She needs to rest.” From being invisible at one moment to towering over the seated women the next, Trina seemed to have crossed miles in her mind and reached a place from where there was no return.

“Get up.” Trina offered her hand to her mother who was still staring at her chipped toenails. Cupping her elbow, she guided Ma to bed. She tucked her under the shawl and put another thick blanket over her. Then she pushed away the damp curls crowding her mother’s face. Just as she was about to leave the room, Ma called her back.

“What now?” She muttered with her face buried in Trina’s little chest.

She patted her mother’s head. With Baba gone, she was expecting her mother to finally take charge of things. In the seven years of her life, Trina had come to see her mother as some sort of a shadow, albeit an efficiently functioning one. Ma preferred being relegated to the background. She did everything a mother might be expected to do, but it felt like she followed some invisible motherhood manual and didn’t know how to handle situations that weren’t mentioned in there.

Hence, when things got complicated or difficult for Trina, it was her father that she confided in. Like the time when her best friend stopped talking to her after the new girl joined their class, or the time when one of the senior girls was eating Trina’s lunch but she didn’t want to complain to the teachers because she felt sad for the hungry girl who didn’t bring tiffin from home and didn’t seem to carry any lunch money either. Baba was the one who rushed home from work in the middle of the day after Trina accidentally dropped boiling water on her stomach and after she fell down the stairs of their apartment and split her forehead. Ma was so hysterical that she needed to be taken care of by the neighbours.

It seemed like Ma still wanted someone to tell her what she ought to do. Trina gave the best answer she could think of at that moment, “You sleep for now.”


Uncle and his family went for trips twice a year—during Durga Puja and when school closed during summer vacations. They got her gifts from the places they visited—a scratchy sweater from Shimla, some mementoes of elephants and shikharas from Kerala and Kashmir. Her favorite so far was the journal that they got her from Ladakh. It had pictures of rugged mountains, valleys, lakes, Buddhist monasteries, and animals that lived in those wild terrains.

It fascinated her to no end. She dreamt of visiting the mountains with her mother someday. Last month, when their teacher had asked the class to write what they did during their summer vacation, she wrote an essay about her “trip” to the mountains in Darjeeling. She’d described the sunrise from the Kanchenjunga mountain, the ponies at Mall Road, and the juicy apple pies from Glenary’s in such detail that the teacher loved her essay and read it in front of the class. No one could guess that she wrote it based on the stories that she’d pestered out of her cousin sister.

On nights after her father passed away, as Trina lay beside her mother on the hard mattress spread on the floor of her uncle’s house, she’d tell her mother stories about all the new places she learnt about that day. Ma would be tired after her day at work as an office secretary, a job she’d taken up after Baba’s death.

Trina put her mother to sleep rather than the other way around. “I read about the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Do you know Michelangelo took four years to paint the ceiling? When I grow up, I’ll take you there,” or, “Do you know, one can get lost inside a pyramid?” or, “There’s this amusement park called Disneyland in America where cartoon characters roam around among tourists and you have the world’s best rides. Our local fair’s Ferris wheel rides wouldn’t come close to those roller coasters!” She’d continue with those one-sided conversations while her mother would run her tired fingers through Trina’s hair till they grew limp and the sound of soft snores floated between mother and daughter. Trina would kiss her mother’s forehead and then closing her eyes, imagine those places till she fell asleep.


That summer afternoon, while Trina’s head was bent over her favorite journal, a shadow eclipsed the page. She looked up. “Mrinal Kaku! But uncle is not here.”

She stood up holding her pen in one hand and the journal in another, a sea of sketch pens and notebooks laid strewn around her feet on the mat. Mrinal Kaku was her uncle’s best friend and work colleague. Other than his job in the railways, all he did was travel and climb mountains. Though he lived in their neighbourhood, they hardly ever saw him. But the few times he visited them, his stories fascinated Trina. He even got a projector once and gave them a slideshow of his trekking expeditions to Mt. Trishul.

Mrinal Kaku had been travelling and wasn’t aware that her uncle had gone for a trip with his family. “What is my little girl up to?” He sat down on the mat next to Trina and picked up the tattered atlas in between his stodgy fingers like it was a rotten fish and flicked through the pages so fast that Trina feared that those loosely held pages might come off.

“This is such an old edition, Mumpy!” He called her by her nickname just like everyone in her house did.

“Yes, Didibhai gave it to me when she got a new one.” Trina looked down in embarrassment and shut her journal hastily.

“What’s that you got there. Let me see,” Mrinal Kaku snatched the notebook from under her thigh.

My journal of World Travel! How wonderful! Why were you hiding it? You want to travel, Mumpy?”

Trina chewed on her nails and nodded shyly.

“You should have told me before!” Kaku lightly slapped her back. “Come, let’s go over to my house. I have a brand-new atlas and books about some of these places. You can borrow some if you like!”

It was as if Mrinal Kaku was offering to take her to one of those places rather than simply lending her the books. She rushed to the bedroom and nudged her grandmother. “I’m going to Mrinal Kaku’s house.”

“Come back in an hour,” Grandma muttered and flung an arm over her eyes, “And lock the main door from outside.”

Trina changed into the white frock with pink frills that Ma gifted her on her birthday. She hardly got a chance to speak to Mrinal Kaku in her uncle’s presence. When she’d ask more than a couple of questions about his travels, her uncle would grow impatient and ask her to go outside and play.

Mrinal Kaku’s apartment smelt like a mixture of unwashed socks, rotting fruit, and damp books. A fusty cloud of dust and stale cigarette smoke made her sneeze as she stepped inside. The carpet was so dusty that Trina was glad she didn’t have to remove her shoes like they did before entering her house. Her eyes took some time to get adjusted before Mrinal Kaku switched on the tube light. It was the middle of the afternoon and yet, the windows were shut, the flat enclosed in a sack of darkness.

He motioned her to sit on the wooden couch with brown cushions that looked like they used to be yellow once upon a time. There was a glass topped coffee table in front of her. It contained a stack of National Geographic magazines. On top of the magazine tower sat an expensive crystal ashtray brimming with cigarette butts, ash, and match sticks. A fancy looking lighter and a pack of unfiltered cigarettes lay next to the ashtray. The glass top of the coffee table was pockmarked with rings of condensation and coffee stains.

But even though she regretted wearing her best dress to such a filthy place, she couldn’t help feeling awestruck at the rows of bookcases lining the walls. There were books on philosophy, nature, travel, science, art, photography, mountains, and English and Bengali novels. Some of the titles themselves were too hard for her to understand. She wanted to hold those books in her hands, but she had been taught not to touch things at other people’s houses without their permission. She sat there trying to read the titles one by one. Mrinal Kaku had disappeared inside the dark belly of the house.

He returned with a tray on which sat two glass tumblers with what looked like orange flavoured Rasna and a plate of potato chips. He placed the tray on the table between them and slumped beside her, their legs lightly grazing.

“Now tell me, which places would you like to visit?” She caught a whiff of cigarette smoke and raw onion in his breath and slightly pushed herself away from him while pretending to adjust her frock. “Everywhere. Himalayas, the beaches of Kerala, the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, deserts in Rajasthan. Also, all around the world—the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China…the…”

Trina’s thoughts were interrupted. Something tickled the side of her thigh. From her peripheral vision, she noticed Mrinal Kaku’s gemstone ring clad fingers playing some invisible piano keys up and down from the side of her waist to her knees. His gaze was so intently fixed on her, that Trina suspected he didn’t even realize what he was doing. She cleared her throat and glanced at the stack of magazines, “When I grow up, I want to be a photographer for some magazine like the National Geographic. That way I can travel a lot…”

“Mmm…hmm…” Kaku murmured. He was now lifting the hem of her frock with two of his fingers like he held a pair of forceps between them. She could feel the goosebumps prickling her limbs. Her heart started pounding harder. She tightened her stomach as earthworm-like fingers crawled all over her bare thigh.

With his free hand he retrieved a magazine from the stack and gave it to Trina, “Take a look at these pictures.” Some tribal men and women stood holding spears, they were all stark naked, except for their jewelry. Usually Trina wouldn’t have minded this, but right then, she felt like she was one of them, standing like that before Mrinal Kaku while he pinched and prodded her as if she was a plastic doll in her doctor playset.

He related a funny story about some tribes he met in the Andaman Islands. They were chasing him at first but Trina wasn’t sure what happened afterwards because even as she watched his lips moving, his voice going up and down to express the tension and the suspense, his eyes dilating with the memories of the event, all of her senses were focussed on his stubby, calloused fingers thrusting aside her cotton underwear and rubbing her where it hurt.

The fingers shoved through the clamminess and poked her at places where no one had touched her before. Once when she’d fallen on a heap of stone chips and gashed her knee, she had touched the raw wound and flinched at how badly it stung. It felt the same way now, but she couldn’t figure out why Kaku would try to purposefully hurt her. She looked at his face, still flushed with the excitement of the memory of running away from near death in the hands of the tribal people.

Nothing in his expression betrayed anything out of the ordinary. She tried hard to express how queasy she felt, but the words wouldn’t form on her tongue because of some unknown yet primal fear. Or, was it shame? She adjusted her thighs hoping for some respite from the discomfort.

Her eyes grew glassy as she counted one to hundred backwards in her mind in order to focus on something else. When she was at forty-seven for the third time, Mrinal Kaku got up to fetch an Encyclopaedia from the shelf. When he returned, he patted his lap and asked Trina to sit on it, “Let me show you something interesting.”

Trina swallowed her “no” once again. The bulge in the seat of his pants poked her from the outside even as his fingers crawled, rubbed, and invaded her insides. She wanted to cry. She wanted to run away. She didn’t know why she wanted to do those things but there was something that made her stomach churn and it wasn’t the stale chips because she hadn’t yet had any of it.

When the doorbell rang, Trina let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. As Mrinal Kaku went to open the door, without realizing what she was doing, she crept behind him. It was Babun dada from the flat above Mrinal Kaku’s. He was asking for that day’s newspaper. “Babun dada!” her voice came out shriller than she’d intended it to be, “I have to collect the knitting needles from your aunt for Ma. I’ll come with you.”

Once outside the door, Trina didn’t wait to explain herself to Babun dada. She sprinted down the stairs towards the road. Grandma was still sleeping when she finally reached home, panting and sweating. She gathered the tattered atlas in between her fingers and shredded it to pieces before throwing it into the gutter outside.

Then she locked herself in the bathroom and stripped off her frock, her petticoat, her faded pink underwear with the panda prints on it. She stepped into the brick chowbachha in the bathroom that collected water for bathing. It almost reached her shoulders. She dunked her body underwater and held her breath for as long as she could before her head bobbled to the surface as she struggled to breathe.

She spluttered water; her nose stung. She took in a few fiery breaths before sliding underwater once again. Tightly coiling her body into a comma, she squeezed her eyes shut, and held herself in an embrace. When she floated up once more, she coughed out water and gasped for breath. Her fingers looked wrinkled, like an old woman’s, and when she curled them, she half expected Baba’s hand to materialize.

For the first time since her father’s death, she let herself wail as loudly as she could, inside that damp, mossy bathroom. The running water from the tap muffled the sound of her cries. She cried and she cried till she got tired and then she went underwater till she was forced to come up to the surface when the tears would come once again. She lost count of the number of times she repeated this cycle.

She’d never let go of herself like that since Baba’s death. Everyone called her brave, but she knew that she had to be strong for her mother who seemed to be on the verge of breaking into tiny fragments like the eggshells that they painted for Easter at school. She held back her tears and did whatever she had to do. Study. Read. Write. Run in loops around the periphery of the school’s playground till her tears turned to exhaustion and thirst, till her legs hurt more than her insides.

She didn’t lose control even on those nights when Baba’s lemon soap smell wouldn’t let her sleep. Even when Ma refused to speak for days after Baba’s death and people feared that she’d gone speechless. But today she needed him. She missed him the most because she couldn’t understand what had just happened that made her want to shed her skin like a snake.

All the water in the tank was not enough to scrub herself clean. She wanted to skin herself alive if that was possible and just live with the raw flesh and the veins exposed. What did that pot-bellied mustachioed man do to her? Not even her mother touched her there. Whenever she spread her legs and sat on the couch, her mother chided her, asking her to sit in a ladylike manner. She knew that their underwear hung underneath the saris and the dresses in the clothesline to dry. Ma said that girls’ underwear were things to be hidden because they covered parts of their bodies that had to be kept secret from the world. How come he touched her secret so casually like he was just touching her hair or her feet?

There was a knock on the bathroom door. “Mumpy?” Her grandmother had woken up.

“Mumpy. Mumpy. Why is the tap running for so long? Why are you wasting water?”

“Coming.” She let the word form with all the strength she could gather.

Her grandmother kept knocking.

“COMING.” Her scream echoed in the bathroom.

The knocking stopped.

When the three of them, Ma, Grandma, and Trina, sat for dinner that night, Trina kept her eyes lowered on her plate of roti and cabbage curry. The two older women were talking about the neighbours and the rising price of onions. Trina realized she was merely playing with her food when Ma said, “Mumpy, why aren’t you eating?”

She looked up at her mother and saw a look of shock on her face. “Are you not well? Your eyes are bloodshot!” She put the back of her palms on Trina’s forehead. “You have a fever. Didn’t you notice she had a fever?” She looked at Grandma questioningly.

“She was out all afternoon. Then she took a bath late in the evening. Maybe, that caused the fever.” Grandma explained.

Ma shook her head, frowning, “Where have you been all afternoon?”

Trina looked at her food. She didn’t trust herself to answer that question normally. She tore a piece of roti and stuffed it inside her mouth before mumbling, “Mrinal Kaku’s house.”

She could feel her mother’s gaze piercing her. “Why?”

Trina had no choice but to hold her mother’s gaze. “He’d come over. He took me to show his books on travel.” Her voice trembled, so she quickly added, “I don’t feel well. Can I go to bed?”

She lay on the bed awake comforted by the familiar sounds of the fan whirring, the crickets chirping outside, and the soft snores of her mother and her grandmother protecting her from both sides. When the ashen light of a new morning finally crept from underneath the curtains of the window, she walked to the toilet. It burnt when she tried relieving herself. She felt scared and confused and that made the annoying tears cloud her vision. The hand on her shoulder startled her. She shut as she sputtered the story in bits and pieces to her mother.

When she finished, she opened her eyes and looked into Ma’s eyes. They were filled with tears. But there was also a frown creasing her forehead. Her hands were balled into tight fists and before Trina could even react, her mother’s palm struck her right across the face, “Why would you go to a man’s house alone, you stupid girl?”

Trina lowered her eyes and bit into her lower lip till she drew blood. She’d never been hit by her parents before. She felt her mother’s hand pulling her close and she hid her face on her mother’s bosom. “I’m sorry,” Trina broke down. Ma’s face was wet with tears, too, when she sat on her haunches and lifted Trina’s chin to meet her eyes. “Just forget about it. Don’t tell anyone, okay? And never, ever trust a man so blindly.”

Her mother didn’t discuss the matter anymore, but she made an additional set of rules about Trina’s clothes and the way she should conduct herself. Ma reminded her frequently how she was a big girl now. Trina followed all the rules, and yet, when she couldn’t sleep on some nights, she’d keep wishing that her father was there to pat her head and assure her that everything was okay.

She felt like bursting into tears just by looking at her classmates playing or singing without any shadow of guilt or bad memory cast upon their faces. Sometimes, when she couldn’t help the tears, she wished her mother would say just one comforting word. And since she never said that, Trina’s conviction grew with time that she was the one to blame. It was her carelessness and stupidity that led to this.

When her uncle’s family got back from their holiday and life went back to normal, Mrinal Kaku started visiting their house once again. She would make it a point to hide inside her room with a pile of books or school projects. Nothing changed in his life at all. Trina hated that man but more than that she hated the fact that she couldn’t leave it all behind, because no one would ever tell her, even if for a moment, that it was not her fault.



Kasturi Patra has appeared in Bengal Write Ahead (Rupa Publications), Escape Velocity—an anthology of thirteen contemporary Indian short stories, and anthologies published by Women’s Web. Her short story, “Broken Dolls” has recently been published in Jaggery Lit Mag.