These god damned dogs! One would begin howling, and then another, and a third, until the air was filled with their screeches and yowls. Nishan had heard of wolves doing that, but then, he mused, dogs belonged to the wolf family too. Their infernal racketing had woken him up from his afternoon siesta, and he just could not go back to sleep. He fidgeted a while, pressing random keys on his cell phone, and then abruptly got up.
He walked over to the next room, opened the door a crack and peered in. His grandfather lay as he always did – huddled like a bundle of rags on the rickety bed with the dirty bedspread. Dirty not because his mother would not like to wash it, but because she couldn’t lift the old man and get the sheet out. His mother was a little farther off, hunched over the kerosene stove, now that there was a serious shortage of gas cylinders. And then, finally, his eyes strayed to the corner. His aunt was seated on a tattered cushion, her fingers tracing the lines of the Geeta, her lips moving softly, her body rocking to-and-fro. Her white sari had transformed itself into a yellow so sickly, it hurt his eyes.
“These dogs are driving me mad !” his mother carefully lifted the pressure cooker off the stove and onto a newspaper spread on the floor.
“Bad omen, bad omen…” the old man stirred a bit, trying to stretch himself into a more comfortable position, “The God of death has set his eyes on our home…”
“He has arrived to take me with him, I feel it,” his aunt’s incoherent mumble.
“Don’t say that, Maiya,” his mother sighed, always playing the peacemaker.
“It’s my time, my time, carry me away, Hari,” his grandfather’s rasp again.
Nishan couldn’t bear it. This crumbling house filled with the smells and groans and mutterings of old people. He banged the door shut, and that was how his mother realized he was around.
“Nishan!” she called out.
He strode on.
“Nishan! Chora! Eat before you head out, dinner is almost ready. Where are you going ?” her voice grew faint as he clanged the gate shut.
He wondered idly where he actually was going and then headed off to the cyber cafe in the next lane. He reached the glass doors, fingered the stencil proclaiming the name of the cafe, but did not go in. Instead, he sat down on the stairs and pulled out a cigarette.
An hour later, he was still there, on to his fourth cigarette. It was hard and cold and uncomfortable, but at least he felt alive. Far away from the suffocating confines of his home, where everyone seemed to be half-dead. And by the predictions of the lousy dogs, one of them would die someday soon.
Nishan wondered who the first to go would be. It would have to be Baje, he was nearly seventy. But then there was nothing actually wrong with him. It was as if he aged and took to bed overnight when his only son left him alone and disappeared. Since that day six years ago, his Baje had only two things to say. It was either: “That idiot Naresh, I wouldn’t forgive him if he came begging on all fours.” And then, after a minute, “Why, why, why did he have to leave! If I could only look at him one last time, I could die in peace…” Any other day, thoughts ofBaje angered and irritated Nishan by turns. But today, at the thought of losing him, he felt the only sympathy welling up within himself. What else could you expect from someone whose son abandoned him and whose grandson he never had a kind word for? The same grandson whom he had once carried on his back every day? The memory almost brought a smile to Nishan’s face, but then he remembered Fupu instead.
Was it Fupu who was going to die? He ground the cigarette butt furiously with the heel of his frayed sandals as he thought of her. His widowed Fupu, who had lost her husband at nine years of age, and come back to live with her brother, believing he would take care of her. Thirty years had passed, and she was still with them, in the hope that her brother’s son would now look after her. He paid scant attention to her, even though she religiously queried about his whereabouts. She was not that bad, really, she helped around when she could. And she was definitely affectionate.
But perhaps… it was his Aama who would die? Because they did say the best ones went first. She was the one who actually remembered to give Fupu her medicines and soak apple slices in warm water for Baje. She never even forgot Nishan’s demand for a pair of jeans or a cell phone, doling out money when she could. How was she managing, actually? He reflected upon it a while. Baje’spension barely covered the cost of their monthly rice supply, and the tenants who rented two rooms in their decrepit house paid a pittance. How then, could his mother keep calm and smile every day at her plaintive father-in-law, her shadowy sister-in-law, her good-for-nothing son? And what would happen after she was no more? It meant none of them would survive, either.
And suddenly, in that instant, Nishan knew he did not want anyone to die. His dysfunctional family deserved to live – and live happily.
* * *
It was close to nine when he got home, but they were all waiting for him, as Nishan knew they would. Sometimes he wondered if he were their only hope in life. Today, he realized that he almost surely was. What else did these three have, except their wayward child whom they must secretly hope would rescue them, and give them back the almost-normal lives they once had…He couldn’t do that just as yet, but surely he could forgo his week’s cigarette supply and bring home half a kilo of mangoes. He set the blue polythene bag by his mother’s side and went out to the well. The three oldies tried to keep their voices low, but he could hear their excited chattering.
“Dulahi, keep this green one aside for him, you know he doesn’t like overripe mangoes,” that was his grandfather whispering to his mother.
And with that Nishan’s heart warmed as it hadn’t for the past many, many years. What joy four mangoes brought to these sad people! How little it took to make them happy. And how blind he was not to have seen that.
He scrubbed his feet clean, relishing the feel of the cool water. The water of this well, dug by his grandfather’s mother, was legendary for its sweetness and abundance. It was only now, since houses had sprung up all around theirs, that the water had gradually gone lower and lower until they had to crouch to bring up a bucketful. As he lowered the rope one more time into the well, Nishan thought of the times his mother must have done that, her knees painfully swollen, her arms aching from having washed his heavy jeans and hoodie. He promised himself that she would never wash his clothes again. After all, she might not even have much to live!
Hastily he pushed away this disloyal thought, washed his feet one last time, and then went in. It was as if… as if Tihar had come early to his home, the three people in the tiny room glowed so much. Nishan lowered himself on the cushion beside his mother and was immediately rewarded by her hand combing through his hair.
“Stop it, Ma!”he shook his head but nudged himself closer to her hand. He could feel his mother smiling, and it brought back so many memories, of her running her fingers through his hair as he did her homework, it was the only way he could concentrate…When did things change? He knew when, of course. It was when his father, always irresponsible, left them behind to start a new life for himself. They had not met him since, although they heard enough about him living with this red-lipsticked woman in the suburbs. But when his neighbors and relatives eagerly told Nishan’s mother of him walking hand-in-hand with the other woman, she didn’t flinch. “Well, it is just fate, sister…” she would say, without a hint of bitterness.
Lulled by his mother’s caress, Nishan rested his head on her lap and thought of what a wonderful woman she was. That he had failed to appreciate a mother like her… He would search for his driving license tomorrow, and ask Parshu Kaka if there was still an opening at his taxi service. Parshu Kaka, his father’s friend, had urged him to join so many times. Yes, he would do that the first thing tomorrow, he would cut down on his loitering, he would make sure his only three people in the world had mangoes to eat every week, and grapes once a fortnight.
And suddenly, he snapped out of his reverie. The horrible dogs were at it again. His aunt walked up to the window and bolted it tight, but the awful howls still reached their ears. His grandfather seemed to shrink a little into himself. “That evening when Naresh was born, dogs kept walking up to our door and barking furiously. Every time I shooed one off, another would take its place. And then… and then…”
Here he paused to cough and coughed so hard he couldn’t continue. Nishan reached out to Baje, stroking his chest with one hand and easing his head with the other. That was all they could do. With a final cough, Baje sighed his way to normality. And though he did not resume the conversation, Nishan knew, of course, what had happened – his grandmother had spent the last of her strength to give birth to Naresh before she passed away.
“It is exactly like that, exactly like that night…” his grandfather murmured in his rheumy voice. Nishan continued to pat Baje‘s arms, who seemed to relax a bit. His breathing grew even, and presently he began to snore softly.
Nishan’s mother had finished putting away the plates, and she now held Fupu‘shand as they made their way to the inner room. Just before she closed the door, his Ma looked at him and smiled. That smile, that precious smile… that was what made Nishan decide to carry in a bucket of water before he went to sleep. So that his mother would not have to rush to the well as soon as she got up. Ma heard the latch clang open, assumed it was Nishan going out, and drifted back to sleep. She knew she would sleep tight, with dreams of her beloved son, her son who seemed to have come back to her. The dogs were screeching louder than ever, but they did not bother her anymore. She was not even bothered by the sound of a splash outside. Had someone thrown a bucket inside, or was it a stray dog that had stepped into the open well? She cared no more.
This blissful, heady feeling of her son returning to her. At last.But what was this dream that suddenly descended on her? That Nishan had lost his footing in the dark and tumbled down into the well? That he was flailing his arms, crying out for her, mouthing ‘Ma! Ma!‘. But no sound came out of his mouth, surely it was a nightmare, surely it couldn’t be. Of course, it couldn’t be. She had to fall asleep now, had to get up at five to make tea for her son, somehow she felt he wouldn’t push away a glass of tea tomorrow.
The queasy feeling must be the effect of those wretched dogs, those howling mewling yapping dogs.
And then the sudden silence, as the dogs howled no more.
This story was originally published in [The Kathmandu Post, 8 March 2014]
Please visit author’s page to make the comment.
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