Help me welcome fellow Tirgearr author Dianne Noble to my blog today. She’s here to whisk you away to exotic India with her intriguing book, Outcast.
Rose leaves her Cornwall café in the capable hands of Hannah, to search in the sweltering slums of Kolkata, India, for her daughter Ellie who has been on a gap year but failed to return. All Rose knows is she’s trying to help the Dalits, the community of Untouchables.
Ellie has always had a difficult relationship with her mother and is less than welcoming when Rose arrives and only grudgingly allows her to help.
But then Ellie returns to England and Rose stays, feels she cannot abandon the children.
In the daily struggle for survival, she is often brought to her knees, but finds strength to overcome the poverty and disease, grows to love the Dalit community she helps. She falls in love with Kishan and is devastated when he is killed by a bomb. The urge to go home is strong but it is the children who hold her. She cannot leave them.
When she discovers Hannah’s pot-smoking mother has been living in the café and the place is at risk of being torched by drug barons, she flies home, to discover the place has been closed down by the Environmental Health Officer. Desperately she works to reverse the order. Finally, she has to make the terrible choice between her daughter, who now needs her, and the Dalit children, who need her more.
She breathed in slowly, one, two, three and then out. Watched the conductor squeeze through collecting fares. The bus stopped again. How could they possibly get any more on? Babies were passed over heads until their mothers could battle their way through to reclaim them. The smells of spice and sweat increased, the rattling of the bus, loud conversations.
‘Start pushing,’ Ellie yelled.
By the time the bus stopped Rose had made it to the door. With one last effort she burst through the passengers trying to force their way up the steps and almost fell on to the road. Her shirt was stuck to her back and the air outside felt cool.
She coughed as she followed Ellie through the honking traffic, held her hands over her ears.
‘You’ll get used to it.’ Ellie said.
A family was living on the blackened pavement, only enough room for one person at a time to lie down. Naked toddlers. Rice boiling in a pan teetering on a charcoal fire. Filth, flies. And beyond this family, another and another, packed tight, inches away from the lorries roaring along the road. She hurried past a body enveloped in a brown blanket, studded with flies. Stepped across a pool of vomit, rushing to catch up with Ellie. Shouted out in pain as she turned her ankle on broken stones
She was waiting by a footbridge. Rose tried to re-arrange her features into a semblance of calm but tears ran down her cheeks..
‘I know it’s tough, Mum. Do you want to go back to your hotel?’
Rose wanted very much to do just that, but she knew her street cred would be zero. She swallowed. Hard. ‘No.’
‘OK.’ Ellie’s voice softened a little. Was there a glimmer of sympathy there, a touch of respect? ‘Forgot to ask. Did you have any injections before you came? Hepatitis, tetanus…?’
Ellie sighed. Rose followed her down a dark passageway between two crumbling shops, the lumpy feel of broken pavement beneath her feet. Only room for single file. Kept her arms pressed to her body, unsure of what was either side. The alley led into an open space. The stench hit her first – faeces, rotting food. Crows cawed overhead. She looked up to see a tangled geometry of power lines and wires. At her feet naked children up to their ankles in rubbish, empty water bottles, used tampon applicators, yellowed cotton buds, mildewed newspaper. A mountain of stinking, festering filth.
‘This way,’ said Ellie, edging past a bent old woman heaving a handcart. A cow chewed an aged vest. A parabola of pee as a man urinated against a wall. ‘Right, we’re here.’
Rose saw a settlement of huts made by driving bamboo poles into the ground and draping empty sacks and cardboard over the top. Maybe a dozen of them on the edge of a green pool of sewage. Tiny children ran around playing, shrieking with laughter.
‘Where are their mothers?’ Rose asked.
‘Working. Trying to get money for food.’
‘Aunty! Aunty!’ They’d spotted Ellie, tore across the broken ground, flinging themselves at her. She squatted, gathered them all into her arms. Rose saw running sores on their limbs, stiffened.
‘Ellie, don’t,’ she pleaded. ‘You’ll catch something.’
My God, I didn’t bring her up to do this. All the opportunities she’s had, the best schools. She had everything I didn’t and she’s squandering it.
‘Good Morning,’ Ellie said to the children. ‘Now, what do you say?’
‘Good Morning Aunty.’
‘Brilliant!’ She wiped green candles from a boy’s nose.
‘They’re dirty, Ellie,’ Rose whispered.
‘No water for washing,’ she snapped. ‘One tap for the whole place and it’s only on for two hours in the morning. They can’t afford to stand in line with a bucket. They need to earn money for food.’
A tiny girl held up her arms to Rose, who recoiled as she saw movement in her hair.
‘Pick her up, Mum.’
A woman in a thin sari dragged a sheet of cardboard towards Ellie then put her hands together as if in prayer, bowed her head.
‘Namaste,’ said Ellie. ‘Mum, this is Shenaz.’
The woman gave her a shy smile. Ellie squatted on the cardboard and brought out paper and pencils from her bag.
‘Shenaz has family here,’ she continued. ‘They share their earnings with her and in return she passes on what I teach her.’
The woman’s head was bent, her tongue between her teeth, as she started copying the words. The children clustered round to watch, pushing and shoving to get nearer. Ellie put her fingers to her lips and they quietened.
‘Mum, if you really want to help, talk to the children, teach them words.’
Rose gave her a blank look.
‘Words, Mum. Anything.’ Her voice rose. ‘One, two, three. My name is Rose. This is my arm, my leg.’ She was shouting now and the children shrank back.
‘I’m sorry Ellie, really. I can’t.’
Shenaz had risen to her feet. Looked from Rose to Ellie and back again, her expression fearful. Ellie put an arm around her shoulder.
‘It’s OK, Shenaz. Don’t be scared. One of the boys can show my mother the way back. She’s leaving.’
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