Your friend shows you photos of trees cloaked in spiderwebs when you go on a smoking break. You are among the lucky men who have landed jobs this summer, repairing the boundary fence that separates Camp City from the rest of Nadia district.
Between taking drags on your beedi, you pinch the screen of your friend’s phone to enlarge the photo. The spiderwebs are unbroken, enormous, like the nets your neighbors cast in the Churni river to catch fish. Only here, the nets have caught trees. Dense crowns smothered in thick mesh bring back the stifling nights of childhood, when three generations of your family lay on the dirt floor under one mosquito net. Your grandmother used to snore beside you. The pungent odor of mustard oil coming from her hair remains stuck in your nose, though she is long gone.
A flood drove millions of spiders out of their homes. They took refuge in the trees. “Has to be the greatest spider movement in history,” your friend says and chuckles. He is copying the frenzied newsman who comes on TV every evening to list the largest, the biggest, the greatest happenings in the country. Events that were supposed to happen long ago are finally happening in India, under the Big Man’s leadership. History is moving, with two pairs of legs in the air, two on the ground.
Your supervisor hollers at you. He is a straight-talking man and wears blinding pink overalls always. You crush the butt of your beedi, tighten a coarse gamcha around your forehead to suck sweat, and run to the fence.
The men on your team are furious. They throw a razor-wire coil at you, as though you are the only reason they are behind. The group first to complete half the day’s work is receiving free rusk biscuits and tea.
You straighten the thorny wire with your bare hands. Your friend crouches to mark the level on the wood post where the metal must be fastened. The new and improved fence will be eight-foot-high, much higher than the original barricade your grandparents saw when they arrived in Camp City seventy years ago. The earlier fence was installed to corral people who had reached this half of the newly split nation after running away from the ash and blood on the other side. There are still kilometers of mending to do and days of wages to be earned. The sun, a festering boil in the sky, slows down everyone.
Your grandparents fled East Pakistan and entered India through the Benapole entry point in the middle of the night. Like everyone living in Camp City, they did not want to come. When you were starving as a child, they tried to fill you up with stories. They had abandoned acres of land on the other side. Everyone in Camp City told the same stories. They had left large farms, huge houses, and trunks of jewelry behind. But the memory your grandparents carried of their last nights across the border was like a stab wound. They would bathe their house with water before going to bed. If rioters attacked, the damp walls would take time to catch fire. It would give them the chance to wake up and run.
That was no way to live. You were grateful they took a boat and then a steamer—both vessels crammed beyond capacity—to come to this side of the border, although when the steamer ran into high rapids, some passengers fell. Your little aunt, a six-year-old girl, was lost in the turbulence.
Camp City, a basti made of tarpaulin tents, was meant to be a temporary address. The government issued your grandparents refugee cards and they believed better days were about to come. Look how that turned out. Even poles of the boundary fence began to rot. Barbed wires sagged from the weight of drying clothes.
Finally, things are beginning to look up. There is a burst of activities around the construction of a new detention facility in town.
At the end of the day, you watch the sky churn. Out of floating clouds, stars appear like the earthen lamps you light in the memory of your ancestors. The supervisor generally pays and dismisses everyone without a word. Today he asks, “Who among you can read and write?”
You sense there will be more and, perhaps, less tedious work for the literate. You raise your hand and nudge your friend. He is class-eight-pass. You dropped out of school after failing class five.
“Good,” says the supervisor, noting down your names.
It is August, and the fence repair is all but done when the supervisor woos you out of the line. “Your time has come,” he says warmly, and gives you a frozen cola. Whenever there is work, there are treats. Turns out, the government has drawn a register of citizens. The literate must go door to door, check papers, and match names on identity cards with the register. People without the right papers will become numbers caged in the brick-and-mortar detention center.
Did your family ever enter the register of citizens? What are the rules of belonging? Will the passage of time since your family’s border crossing or the miniscule amount of land and air you survive on strengthen your case?
Your friend tries to say something to the supervisor, but the man cuts in. “We are a nation of laws. If you help catch the real pests, you will want for nothing.”
The faces of your ancestors are scabs spotting your past and future. You recall your grandma’s delirious murmur, and your head gets light. In her sleep she would say she pushed her own daughter out of the boat. The journey from that side to this was long and the girl was ill. You covered your ears in horror and turned your back to your grandma every time. But you understood her. You hoped for your little aunt to be caught in a fisherman’s net. She could be hauled to dry land, her lungs not yet flooded, her mouth full of fish.
“Camp City” by Torsa Ghosal appeared in Issue 42 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Torsa Ghosal is the author of a book of literary criticism, Out of Mind (Ohio State University Press), and an experimental novella, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India). Her fiction and essays have appeared in Catapult, Necessary Fiction, Literary Hub, Bustle, and elsewhere. A Tin House and Community of Writers alumna, she lives in Sacramento, where she is an assistant professor of English at California State University.