While the World Walked

The first thing I remember is the fragrance of fresh, moist earth and the touch of a soft, light hand. Her feet were planted in the same soil as mine. And it had found its way to her knees and elbows. As the breeze swayed my tiny leaves, she raised a little hand and waved in answer. Two dark eyes stared at me, curiosity blending into affection. Eyes like those of a bird – deep, sharp, mischievous and restless. But all my long life, in my mind, it has always been the other way round. Whenever I have looked at a bird, I have thought that it has eyes like hers.

I had been gifted to her. She had tucked the seed into the bed, under plenty of warm cover, with her own little hands on her fifth birthday. I think the feel of the warm soil pleased her as much as it did me. I was to be the beginning of the garden of the new home. During my first days in this world, she explained to me why I was special: unlike the cloud that looked like an elephant, I would not get lost; unlike last year’s birthday dress, I would not grow less. I did not know what an elephant was, or a birthday dress. Clouds I had met.

In a few more birthdays, I had caught up with her. But I was the only thing in the garden that grew. An occasional visitor said I was hogging everything the soil had to offer; it may not be too late to get rid of me. Somehow, that never came to pass. Personally, I was not threatened by the mention of an axe; I had never seen one. Life began every sunrise. I felt the green run through my veins and was proud of every leaf that sprouted. Birds were beginning to come. With some of them, it could go as far as moving in. The party was in full swing.

She, meanwhile, had grown into a restless little imp. Her talks with me were carried out not sitting in my shade, leaning against me, but pacing to and fro nearby, circling me, or, in moments of exclamation, giving one of my arms a little shake. I wasn’t yet big or strong enough to carry her in them.

One day, there was an accident. It was beyond my field of vision, but I gathered that her romping had led to a fall and a minor fracture. Poor thing. It was strange and uncomfortable to see someone made for movement to be stationed in a room, even if temporarily. Her window framed me, so that we saw a lot of each other in those days, even though we weren’t near enough for chats. The distance notwithstanding, I could see that the pause wrought a change in her. One night, drifting out of and into sleep, I automatically glanced at her window, and saw her staring at me. I was startled, wondering if she was in pain or too ill, and if yes, why wasn’t she calling for help. But she seemed to be fine, only awake, so I waved an arm, she waved back, and I went back to sleep. It was not the last time. Another night, it rained, and as I was enjoying the warm shower, I saw her looking at me with some concern. I was glad when she closed the window. Not out of a sense of outraged modesty, but because it wouldn’t do to let the rain into her room.

Rain was fine; it was welcome. Storms, however, were a tad more difficult. I was yet to reach the age where the strongest gale would only be play. At that time, I had to clutch the ground as firmly as I could; sometimes, I lost not only leaves, but also a few of the lighter arms. The morning after a storm, during which I had been too preoccupied to check her window – anyway, it had been closed – she surprised me delightfully by coming up to me. I hadn’t even known she could get out of the room. Up close and in the daylight, I could see even more clearly the change in her – a change more lasting than the illness. It was a new and very becoming quietness. She looked around at the broken arms, the heap of leaves. I may have been standing slightly crooked. It was nothing to worry about, but she put her arm around me and said, “Poor thing.” She was the convalescent, so I stroked her head lightly, and she grinned and winked as of old.

Since then, I became an extension of her room. She read or sat with me more than earlier. There was in her mind questions she was too embarrassed to ask. I wished I could have assured her. Yes, I was tired sometimes, but who isn’t? It passes. I didn’t understand what she meant by impatience. Most importantly, I needed to tell her that no, I was not lonely. Loneliness presented a different face to me than it did to her. Sometimes I wonder whether my confidence was the wisdom of a sage, after all, or the immaturity of youth.

Through my teenage and the twenties, more houses had mushroomed around us. Eventually, it turned out that I was in the way for new buildings. When the seed had been planted, there had been no walls, and boundaries but vague. Now, I prevented gardens – useful or ornamental; I confused demarcations; I drained the soil; I even blocked the view. My fruit was useless; I paid no rent, and was not eye candy. Most offensively, I looked like I was here to stay. Discontent murmured for a few years before growing into a protest. The gentle family, who had brought me into the world and considered me a part of their home, gave in to the local demand of introducing me to that axe. Given the obviousness of the choice, they were unduly upset by it.

The neighbours were considerate enough to offer to share the firewood. That’s the only use I’ll ever be of, they pointed out. Till then, I had been someone’s sorry idea of a garden. Now, I was a communal weed. On their way out, someone gave a careless pull at one of my arms, as if to get it out of his way. He had chosen a wrong ’un. Instead of neatly snapping off, it cracked but kept hanging loosely and awkwardly, leaves and all, even more irritating. I would have shrugged off the stupid gesture, but just then, I saw her standing at her window and wished that she had not seen it.

Nature is given to melodrama. The clouds that day – shaped not just like elephants but ice-age mammoths – were dark and growling. I heard someone observe that they may not need the axe after all. A sufficiently vehement storm or a single fork of lightning could save them the trouble. She heard them too. Oh mulch.

The night and the storm both grew darker, but her window did not close. I had no grudge with the skies, but it seemed like they were going to save the neighbours some trouble after all. It was one of the worst storms I had lived through so far. I broke in places. The earth felt thinner at my feet. The leaves had all turned grey with dust. According to my bend-but-don’t-snap policy, I swayed this way and that, dodging the lashings of the wind. I had no idea when she had come out and stood near me, watching the fight, fascinated. I shook my head and nodded severely towards the house, but I’m not sure she even got my message. I knew that the sound of the wind through my leaves intrigued her, and tonight it was playing loudly and continuously, but surely it was best enjoyed from the warm comfort of the room? How could I keep her away – push her away? The storm could turn my gentlest gesture into a violent blow.

I heard a crack of lightning and was almost relieved. Finally, she would go back inside. I wished someone else had been awake and come to check on her and took her away long ago. At any rate, I thought, bending away from her to avoid a gust, if this had been a sort of goodbye – that’s what must have been on her mind – I appreciated it. Here came the clap of thunder.

I never saw that axe. The night paled, the downpour came, but both the rain and the sunrise had changed forever. Before the neighbours could come to confirm that the storm had done their job, the family found her beside me, as if she had fallen asleep with her head on my shoulders. By morning, the word had spread: I was cursed. I had fought the storm and diverted it upon her. I had taken her life to preserve mine. People came hurrying, but stopped at a distance, horrified at my vengeance. No one tried to break off an arm; they seemed loath to even kick at the fallen ones.

The family left. The home emptied. This should have made things easier for the others; on the contrary, it made them very angry. They said that the family had put a curse on the place. That she was now haunting me. Everyone blamed everyone else for being a superstitious coward and for refusing to go near me. The years crumbled the little house down into dust.

I remained standing.

A new bird has come to make home with me. They haven’t seen the likes of her before, the people around here, and they are a bit puzzled and a bit fascinated by her strange loveliness. I could tell them her name, but I won’t. I feel as excited as a sapling.

It was the misty, unearthly time: neither dark nor light; too late to be night, too early to be dawn. No one witnessed the meeting but the other trees – babies, the oldest of them – and the early birds, who glanced at my guest with interest but no suspicion. Here there are many, but none like her.

When she came and sat down quietly, deep among the leaves, I woke from my slumber as if someone had laid a gentle hand on my old, weary heart. Then she flapped her soft wings, flew up and circled me, hopped from one branch to another, and I waved all my arms and danced all my leaves in incredulous rapture. Have you really come at last?

After we both had calmed down a little, and she had called me her dear old one about a dozen times, she said, “What do you mean have I come at last? Haven’t I been coming here every time?”

“Not knowingly, you haven’t.”

“Don’t try to be clever. How was I to know? And yet, I did, and you know that.”

We were silent for a while, rather overwhelmed; blissful; lost in our thoughts, but finally, once more, together. Then she said, “But you know that this time, it’s different, don’t you?”

“I knew it at once.”

“Age has made you very complacent, I see. Age, and all that myth about having special powers. Haha. You old rogue, to think people think that you grant their wishes!”

“I do, too.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“What inelegant expressions you have picked up.”

At this, she burst into laughter. We were in the mood to laugh at silly jokes. Birds put up a fantastic show of being grave and earnest, but here’s a small tip from one who has seen them from close quarters: they have a sense of humour like none other. Some of the jokes an owl (a lodger) has told me can make me crack up on a bad day. I told her this and she said she had no doubt, and called me an old rogue again.

“What’s with the ‘old’? I am actually five years younger than you,” I said, feigning exasperation. I felt nothing but an all-enveloping happiness.

“Well, you must be at least a hundred. Or is it two? Oh dear, dear! How many times I must have come and gone while you simply stood here!”

“Waiting for you.”

She paused a quiet moment between her mirth. “All the time?”

“From the beginning. You brought me here. You had to come and take me away.”

She whistled softly. “Was it terrible? The wait?”

“Quite entertaining, more often than not.”

Again, she laughed her silvery laugh. It’s a little like the sound of brooks.

“How do you know that it’s different this time?” I asked.

“Because I remember everything now,” she said. I nodded. Once again, we fell into silent reminiscing.

And so the rest of the day, and a few more days after that, passed in a haze of wonder and gladness, curiosity and confirmation. She wanted to stay for a while. For one thing, she said, she wanted to give me time to say goodbyes. I suspect she wanted to do the same. Although, she must have left her home and her kin already, for she never flew outside the garden. But within it, she spent a lot of time flying around, meeting other birds, other trees, and sometimes perching on one of my higher arms to gaze at the view of the city as it appeared now. Sometimes, we talked about what seemed to have changed, but mostly, we talked of her journey.

“Do you remember the student?” she asked one day.

“The one who was going to be a monk?”

“Yes! But then he thought he should be a freedom fighter, became one, and was killed!”

“Yes.”

“Don’t worry; it wasn’t painful, but quick.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“How about the rich young lady?”

“She was the one who got this garden built, of course.”

“Right. The land was on the fringes of their property. Supposed to be cursed, you were, poor thing.”

“Thanks to you.”

“You’re very welcome! I gave my life for you, you ungrateful old trunk!”

“You did, did you?”

“Of course I did! Had I not died, and took the disrepute of being a ghost on my shoulders, who could have saved you from the axe, I’d like to know?”

“I cannot believe how desperate you are to hog all the credit. I doubt if any axe on earth could have felled me.”

“Oh, is that because of the special powers you have always had?”

“Good guess.”

“I see. I understand. The senility must have set in ages ago. Maybe in the last century. That’s all right. And then, when one is lonely for years and years and years, one tends to lose it rather.”

“You should know. You were the one who always lost sleep over it.”

“Over your loneliness, I did. Clearly, I was wasting my sympathy.”

“Oh, all right, all right! We were talking about the rich lady.”

“Hm. She died in a car accident.”

“Quite young, she had been.”

“All of them died more or less young, don’t you remember?”

“Yes, I suppose so. And all of them could also see it?”

“What, their deaths?”

“Yes?”

“That may be putting it too strongly. But I think all of them had an idea. Especially the would-be monk.”

“Also the botanist.”

“Remind me?”

“The one after the rich lady, of course. She set up this garden, and in her lifetime, it was taken care of, but after she died, it fell to neglect. It was the young student who, after discovering me, decided to study botany and then devoted so much time and energy – almost his entire life – into reviving this old place, bringing others here, making it a welcome home for the birds…”

“I like how you quietly put in that it was you who showed him the way to botany. How humble you are.”

“Thanks.”

“Haha. But that has been more than once, isn’t it, that you had to suffer much neglect? Poor dear.”

“Here is the advantage of being big and wise, my girl, that a bit of neglect cannot really make you suffer. Sometimes, it is almost welcome. Definitely more than unwanted attention.”

“Is that so?”

“It is so. Why, after you departed, and then your family left, people thought I was cursed, haunted and what not, and gave me a wide berth. It was a great relief, you know.”

“And here I was, thinking that you had been grieving my loss.”

“You know what I mean. I knew you would come back, of course. And I must say, you haven’t changed a bit.”

Again the wood filled with her laughter. Countless years fell away from me. Through the days, as we talked and laughed, quite a large and mixed flock would perch on my arms and fingers, listening in to our gossip. The neighbours leaned in too.

“Go on about the botanist,” she said.

“People thought him half-mad.”

“That was probably another recurring motif!”

“Probably. But when his ladylove thought so too, he lay down to the deep sleep.”

“Oh. But I really like how he shaped this place. Spent hours and hours watching the birds here, didn’t he?”

“Yes, and mostly resting in my shade. I knew then, that it was you. But you didn’t.”

“Don’t try that line. It won’t work. Why do you think I ‘mostly rested in your shade’?”

“Yet you talk of them as them and not yourself.”

“That’s to ensure that you don’t get confused. I do remember now, but not all the details. It is also interesting to hear what you saw and how you saw it. And above all, it’s good to reminisce together, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes. I have been very quiet very long.”

 

On the last day, she wanted to talk about the last time.

“I granted two of your wishes,” I reminded her. “So please stop pretending that I have no magic or that you don’t remember.”

“Two wishes?”

“Two. Or no, wait, three. It’s always three wishes, isn’t it?”

“Oh, go on. Why stop at three?”

“You cannot be serious. The first was when you were a child. You wanted to be a bird. Well.”

“Oh! I did, didn’t I?”

“Yes. And then…”

“But are you going to take the credit for turning me into a bird? That’s quite a claim.”

I would have given her a cold look if I didn’t know that it would be wasted. So I merely dropped the branch where she was perched, and she was immediately all aflutter. Ignoring her indignant flapping, I continued, “Then there was the time you wished that your trees wouldn’t damage the house.”

“Neem and Jack!” she cried, forgetting to row.

“Yes. None of them did any damage. So none of them were felled. Happy?”

I stroked her head with a baby leaf.

“You old softy,” she said.

“Yes. That was the second wish granted. And the third was a painless death. Also delivered.”

“I died in my sleep.”

“And quite a few pair of wings arrived next morning, surprisingly uninterested in crumbs.”

“Did they? Not to boast, but birds are wonderful.”

I didn’t argue with that one. We both glanced around. Our friends and neighbours had retired. All of them had lingered longer today, knowing that tomorrow the two of us will have been gone. The cries of a few late crows could be heard in the distance, over the old city. Perhaps there was not much long to wait now.

“No, there isn’t,” she said.

When the last red in the sky began to fade and the clouds gathered and cleared their throat to announce an untimely shower, she touched my hand with her wing. “Are you ready?” she asked, softly. “Have you said your goodbyes?”

I smiled. “I’ve had a lot of time to do that, yes.”

And then I paused. I had almost forgotten. “Wait. There is something I don’t know.”

“Oh fancy! And what is that?”

“What about your family? Where and how are they?”

She smiled a smile from outside this world. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

 

 

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An Excerpt

I arrived at Calcutta from my village and enrolled in a college. Sachish was studying BA. We must have been the same age.

Sachish looks like a luminary – his eyes are afire; his long thin fingers look like flames; his skin colour seems more like a glow. As soon as I saw Sachish, it was as if I saw his very soul; hence I loved him in a moment.

Strangely, however, many of Sachish’s classmates resented him terribly. Those who resemble the majority do not, without a reason, get embroiled in disputes with the majority. But when the radiant true Being inside a man rends apart the physicality and becomes visible, then some, for no reason, worship him with all their might, and some others, for no reason, insult him with all their might.

The boys at my mess had understood that in my mind, I revered Sachish. It always seemed to disturb their peace. Not a day went by without their speaking ill of him within my earshot. I knew that if a grain of sand falls in the eye, rubbing only irritates it further; where the words are coarse they are better left unanswered. But one day, such nasty rumours about Sachish’s character appeared that I could remain quiet no longer.

My problem was that I did not know Sachish. The others were either his neighbours or some kind of relative. With much force, they declared, “It’s the pure truth”. With even greater force, I said, “I don’t believe any of it.” Then everyone at the mess rolled up his sleeves and exclaimed, “What a rude man you are!”

That night, lying in my bed, I felt like crying. The next day, in a break between classes, while Sachish half-lay on the grass in the shade of Goldighi, reading a book, I blurted out to him – without any introduction – I know not what nonsense. Sachish closed the book and stared at my face for a few minutes. Those who have not seen his eyes cannot understand what that look is.

Sachish said, “Those who speak ill do so because they love slander, not because they love the truth. If that is the case, then what is the point in fretting to disprove them?”

I said, “Still, see, the liar – ”

Sachish interrupted, “But they are not liars. In our neighbourhood, the son of an oilman has palsy. His limbs tremble; he cannot work. One winter day, I gave him a costly rug. That day, my servant Shibu came to me, fuming, and said, ‘Babu, those shivers and trembles of that fellow are all an act!’ Those who dismiss the possibility of anything good in me are like that Shibu. They really believe what they say. An extra and expensive rug fell into my lot; all the Shibus in the country have decided definitely that I don’t have a right to it. I feel ashamed to quarrel with them.”

Without answering him, I said, “They say you are an atheist. Is that true?”

Sachish said, “Yes, I am an atheist.”

I hung my head. I had protested at the mess that Sachish could never be an atheist.

In the very beginning, I have received two great blows regarding Sachish. The moment I saw him, I had assumed that he was the son of a Brahmin. His face seems to be chiselled on white stone like a divine idol. I had heard that his surname is Mallik; there is an aristocratic Brahmin family in our village who are called Mallik. But I learnt that Sachish is gold-merchant by caste. We are a family of dedicated Kayasthas – as a caste, we hate gold-merchants with all our heart. As for atheists, I had known them to be greater sinners than murderers – nay, even worse than beef-eaters.

I stared at Sachish’s face without saying a word. Even then I saw that light in his face, as if a lamp of worship was burning in his heart.

Nobody would have thought that I would eat with a gold-merchant in this life or any other, and that in atheism, my staunchness would surpass that of my teacher. All of it I was fated to experience eventually.

Wilkins was our English professor at the college. He was as learned as he was scornful of the students. In his opinion, teaching literature to Bengali boys in a native college was equivalent to the wage-labour of teaching. That is why, even in a Milton-Shakespeare class, he would give us the synonym for cat: a quadruped of feline species. But Sachish was excused from taking notes. He used to say, “Sachish, I shall make it up to you for having to sit in this class. Come to my house; you shall be able to taste something better.”

The students said angrily that the British professor liked Sachish so much because the latter was so fair-skinned, and because he showed off his atheism to impress the professor. A few of the clever ones had gone to Wilkins to ostentatiously borrow books on positivism. Wilkins had said, “You won’t understand it.” That they were not even worthy of discussing atheism had only aggravated their grievance against atheism and against Sachish.

An excerpt from Play of Four by Rabindranath Tagore.

Neighbours, Visitors, Guests

So this is the world.

 

Quickly, before the crows come.

 

I just called to say…

 

… I love you.

 

none the worse after a shower
colours and colours
Is that a bit of stale bread I see there?
Look what I can do now!

 

Name unknown
Goodnight, love.

 

Images not for reusing. (Not that you’d want to, with stunning public-domain cat photos all around.)

A Tale from the Backyard

I have tried to understand why the idea of felling the trees in our garden sounds so catastrophic to me. A mix of a number of reasons suggests itself. The four main, large trees that stand there today seem to have been always there, ever since I can remember. It’s not that I have taken any special care of them, for I have never taken any care of them at all. But that is what gets to me: the fact that we have never done anything for them, except perhaps planting the seeds, half in earnest, and then they grew up, tall and strong and majestic and beautiful, all on their own. People have stolen their fruits, bent and broken their branches, threw litter at them, but they have never spoken a word. Once, half of a tree crashed down; turned out it had been infested with pests. We thought it wouldn’t survive. After some very basic treatment, it recovered and went on to give hundreds of delicious fruits for which we earned thanks.

The one at the south-east corner of our garden was out-of-reach tall and awe-inspiringly strong. Some months ago I noticed fibre-like things protruding out of its trunk. It looked diseased. I may or may not have reported it. Either way, we did nothing to help it. Neither did we realise the implications of some people burning dry leaves at its foot, so that its mighty trunk became charred black. And then one day, I happened to look up at its foliage and there was no foliage left.

It was peak summer, but every single leaf on its many branches, those that were still sticking to the arms, that is, were dried brown. Beside the other three in full bloom, the sight was not only unexpected but unnatural—uncanny and ominous.

A confused drama and blame-game followed. Everyone thought everyone else had misunderstood or was misunderstanding. I, I think, behaved inexcusably with my parents for letting this happen. Because it is always easier to transfer the responsibility. Then I decided to at least try to do something. I tend to be drawn to lost causes.

The trunk was charred five to six feet from the ground up. Around the foot of the tree was cinder and dry, grey sand-like soil. I scraped away the ash-like dirt from the foot. Then I started watering the dead tree.  My idea, I suppose, was more to apologise to the tree than anything else.

A friend is tenant to the vice-principal of an agricultural university—a very amiable gentleman. I sought his advice through the friend. There was the possibility, after all, that the tree had died because of that undiagnosed disease or both because of that and the fire. I could not ignore a fantastic hope either, that the fire had actually killed the pest or the poison that had been infecting it and that after a period of untimely shedding, the tree would start afresh. But these were distant hopes. The gentleman advised me to keep an eye on the branches. If any fresh leaf appeared, he would prescribe a medicine. Someone else suggested some kind of fertiliser. I stuck to my routine of watering it and the others. For the first time in my life, I was going to our patch of a garden regularly and doing any iota of work for the trees. Occasionally, my cat would follow me, try to play with me, be discouraged by the splashing, wait at a distance and then come back with me. It was peace.

Around a week or so ago, the wonderful happened. No, wrong guess, I did not spot fresh leaves on any branch. I don’t think there are any, though I’ll have to look more carefully. The tree has outsmarted us all. A few inches away from the still-charred trunk, on the now wetter soil, sprouted a little sapling, shiny green in colour, looking as if it has never known what flames are. A few days later, there were two more.

“Will you look at this? How beautiful is it?” I asked my cat, who was rubbing her back against the wall of the house.

Perhaps there was some life left in the roots, and finding the normal channel burnt, it brought itself out through a new channel altogether. Perhaps this too, will not survive. Perhaps it’s not even the same plant. Perhaps it’s a really bad idea to have the plant in that part of the garden, so dangerously close to the foundation of the house. Perhaps it will have to be felled one day.

Perhaps so many things.

Right now, the rains are coming to do their bit.

Image: Pixabay

Stray

Sunday is a bad day for a cat to get attacked by a dog or dogs. ‘Get attacked’, I say, following the phrasing one sometimes finds in case of other violences, like, ‘don’t get raped, women, be careful’. But to get back to the cat.

The kitten was playing in the garden, and then it went missing, and its mother began to sound a bit anxious. Couple of dogs were barking somewhere nearby. I saw the dogs. Yes, they could be fighting among themselves, but as I looked, I thought I detected the other pattern. One of the dogs was barking furiously at something hidden behind a clump of bush-and-tree-trunk-and-rubbish. They were also growling occasionally. Is it the kitten, I thought. I don’t know why I didn’t rush instantaneously. Perhaps because I knew that if it was the kitten then everything would be over except the long-drawn-out death, blood, pain, dulled eyes, wailing mother-cat and so on. I think it was pure escapism that made me delay for a couple of minutes. Then I stirred myself into walking hurriedly to the spot.

I wonder if you have ever seen a cat being attacked by dogs. This is at least the second time I have had the privilege. This is the second time I saw the cat completely off the ground, in air. The first time I saw this, the feline victim was in the midst of a toss or a jump. This time, it was between the teeth of two dogs, being torn apart. I almost mistook it for a piece of rag.

I didn’t even have to shout or brandish the walking stick I was carrying. Or I may have done both, unconsciously. Either way, the dogs fled as soon as I reached the spot.

A white cat with light brown patches; the commonest kind in these parts. Now smeared with dirt and mud. Or some of it may have been blood. Eyes already dulled. Mouth full of dark blood. I tried to hush it into some kind of comfort. I felt hopeful. It was not dead. It was moving a little. It could be saved. Right? I called a pet clinic, knowing it was almost hopeless. It was Sunday evening and everyone deserves a weekly off. My phone could not even connect to the number. I called another vet, hesitating a little at the prospect of asking him to come see an injured stray cat on a Sunday evening. I need not have hesitated. The number was unreachable. As I said, Sunday is a bad day for a cat to get attacked.

I rushed to the gardener of the park beside which the incident happened. It must be one of his many feline guests. He would know how to take care of it. I was reluctant to leave the injured animal alone, but I had to. As I hurried the few steps to the gardener’s shed, I saw the people in the park, children and adults, sitting, walking, playing, talking, relaxing, enjoying – in blissful oblivion. Why would anyone care or even notice if a cat was cornered, clawed and mauled by two dogs and then lay dying? Why, indeed.

The gardener did not spring into action. He kept asking whose cat was it. His, I assured him; I have seen it in the park. (Sure I don’t know all the individual cats, but it’s got to belong to his brood, and even if it didn’t, so bloody what?) Rather reluctantly, he came quite a few steps after me. When he saw the cat, he asked for my stick and then poked the cat with it. Why the hell would he further poke a severely injured cat I don’t know. Perhaps he had his reasons. Perhaps he was trying to ensure it was alive. Perhaps he was trying to goad it into action. Be that as it may, he then said that it was not his cat.

Take it to the park and I will bring cotton and medicines, I said. I just did not have the courage to try to pick up an injured, unknown animal. Maybe someday I will.

He will go and ask if the cat belongs to that house, he said, and walked off, not showing the urgency I felt. He was gone a few minutes. I watched the cat gasp and bleed through the mouth. I called the vets again. If it did belong to some family, maybe they would come and take care of it and the wait would be worthwhile, I thought.

After a few long minutes, the gardener called out from a distance to say that it was not the family’s cat, neither was it his. Take it to the park and I’ll bring medicines, I repeated. Can you just take it to the park? But he mumbled unintelligible counter-arguments and disappeared.

I made three trips to my house to bring mugfuls of water to gently pour on the cat’s body, hoping to wash away the dirt which I thought must be aggravating its wound. I also tried to pour some water into its mouth, but it jerked its head every time. The third time, I put some antiseptic into the water, hoping to clean the wounds better, not at all sure if it was suitable for cats and taking care to not pour it this time in its mouth. But the third time the animal had stopped moving. The second time it had uttered a few unnatural cries. They must have been a sort of death rattle.

Yup, the third time, it was dead. I poured the antiseptic water over a dead body, I think. Dusk had fallen and it was getting more and more difficult to see if it was breathing. But its immobility, its quietness told the tale. Till then, it had been trying to move restlessly, in hope of a shelter perhaps, or to find comfort.

Even at this minute, if you walk along that turn beside the park, you’d miss it. Only if you peered closely at the lighter patch in the dark grass and grounds, you would see what even this afternoon had been a cat in search for food.

I like to think it suffered less than an hour. I am glad and relieved that our kitten is alive and well – as of now. I still cannot bring myself to hate dogs. All my cats have gone this way. I have not seen any of them draw their last breaths, except one baby, two years ago. I am not sorry to have seen the sad inevitability of it all, this time. I wanted the animal to have someone nearby who would witness – and acknowledge – how it suffered. I like to think that I tried. I don’t like to think how grossly inadequate was the effort. I’ll get there someday. Someday, I pray that I’ll actually manage to heal one.

 

The Flute

Kinu Milkman’s Lane.

In a two-storey house

There’s a first-storey room with iron bars

Beside the road.

Patches of sand have collapsed from salty walls

Patches of mould adorn it.

 

A picture on ’merican cloth

Of Ganesh, the wish-fulfiller

Is stuck on the door.

Besides me, another lives in the room

For the same rent

It’s a lizard.

The only difference being

It does not want for food.

 

Salary twenty-five

Junuior clerk in a merchant office.

The meals come from the Duttas’ house

For tutoring their boy.

’Go to the Sealdah station

To spend the evening

It helps me not to burn the light.

The dhush-dhush of engines,

The sound of the whistle,

The passengers’ hustle

Calling the coolies.

The clock ticks ten-thirty.

Then return home to solitary silent darkness.

 

The Dhaleshwari flows by my aunt’s village.

Her brother-in-law’s daughter,

Was supposed to marry this hapless wretch.

’Twas proved that the hour was auspicious—

I ran away at the right hour.

The girl was spared,

And so was I.

She never came to my home, but she comes to my mind every day—

Wearing a Daccai sari, vermilion on her forehead.

 

Monsoon arrives heavily.

My tram fare goes up,

Some days, I miss my pay.

In nooks and corners of the lane

Collect and rot

Mango skins, pits, jackfruit flesh,

Fish gills,

Dead kittens,

And who knows what other rubbish!

The umbrella’s much like

Fined salary,

It’s full of holes.

The office dress

Is like Gopikanta Gosain’s mind

It always stays moist.

The dark shadows of the rains

Enter the damp room

And, like a trapped animal

Faint and become inert.

Day and night it feels as if I

Am bound tightly to some half-dead world.

 

At the turn of the lane lives Kanta-babu,

Long hair carefully combed,

Large eyes,

And a dainty turn of mind.

His hobby is playing the cornet.

Sometimes, the music rises

Through the horrible air of this lane—

Sometimes in the dead of the night,

In the pale of dawn,

Sometimes at late afternoon

When light glitters among shadows.

Suddenly in an evening

The note strikes Sindhu-Baroya

Across the sky plays

The longing of an infinite time.

Right then, in a moment, I know

This lane is a great lie,

Insufferable, like the ravings of a drunk.

Suddenly, I learn in my mind

There’s no difference whatsoever

Between emperor Akbar and Haripada, junor clerk.

Along the melancholy call of the flute

The ragged and the royal umbrella

Travel together to the same heaven.

Where this song is true

In a timeless hour of dusk

There

The Dhaleshwari river flows by;

Deep shadows of the bay on its bank;

In the yard

The one who’s waiting is she

Wearing a Daccai sari, vermilion on her forehead.

 

Translated from Rabindranath Tagore’s mind-blowing original.

The Devil is in the Details

I watched a film and read a book this weekend, both of which raised the same question in my mind. Yes, I know of the widespread tendency to dismiss such questions in the contexts of cinema or literature of these particular genres: I mean, when you are watching an unabashedly commercial Bollywood film or reading an Agatha Christie novel, a suspension of concerns about feminism or patriarchy is automatically asked for. But even after reminding myself of this disclaimer (“This content is not to be taken seriously”), I could not help being bothered.

Because those who think that there are contexts where these questions don’t matter may be making a dangerous mistake. Certain questions always matter. And even if there are a very few exceptions, a mainstream film or a popular novel is most certainly not among them.

I’ll begin with Dame Christie. A successful, independent, good-looking and intelligent woman is finally about to marry the worthy (reserved, chivalrous and so on) guy she has loved for a long time. The guy, suddenly not sounding very worthy any more, says, “…and you’re going to give up that damned dress-making business of yours.”

I wait before I curse him. Let’s hear how she’ll take it.

“You realise that that damned dress-making business is my venture, that I have built it up myself with hard work and made it into a success, don’t you” she says.

(That’s right, girl. You drive some sense into this misguided man.)

“And you have the nerve to say that I must give it up?”

“Yes, I do. You’ll give it all up and come and live in the country with me.”

“Oh, X, but that is what I have always dreamt of! Of course I will!”

You’re kidding me, right?

I mean, it’s not even incompatible—running the successful business and having a happy family life. And no, even at that time and that place it was not incompatible. It would not even have been difficult.

What I don’t understand is, why would Christie, who not only equalled men when it came to success, but outshone many, many of them, would write about this as perfectly normal. Or was she being supremely ironic and I missed her point? I rather hope so.

And now, the Bolly fare. Of course, if I sat down to list the instances of misogyny in Bollywood, I’ll be writing for a long long time to come. This, however, should serve as a good enough and random enough example.

I won’t name the film. It was funny, fast-paced, incredibly absurd and quite enjoyable on the whole. But how these came to be included—thought of, written, shot, directed, acted, edited, included in the final cut, passed by the censor board and then no doubt enjoyed by a fair number of people who do not share my concerns—baffles me.

  1. The two heroes have gone to meet a girl. She comes up slo-mo from a pool, clad in a deliciously tiny bikini. Regular enough. While one of the men talks to her, the other ogles at her chest. Till she raises her eyebrows. This is supposed to be funny.
  2. The heroine appears. She is a thief because she is bored and lonely, don’t you know. Our tougher hero insults her at every word and even handles her roughly. So of course she falls in love with him. And spends the rest of the film drooling at his rudeness. Wow.
  3. Our heroes are chasing an assistant villain and turn up at an underground den of sorts, where the most famous/notorious/popular (I forget how it was advertised) game of the city is held: a beautiful girl dances in front of a basement full of roaring men. After her performance, the toughest arm-wrestle to decide who gets to take her. At this point, you should be calling the human rights-wallahs already, except that if you do, you are taking this too seriously. For it’s all just mildly exciting. And our heroine, the same one who loves it when the hero snaps at her, has followed him here and starts gyrating in a micro-mini dress. Of course he will arm-wrestle-rescue her at the end. So why not have a bit of fun meanwhile with about a hundred would-be (or actual) rapists? Go, Bollywood.
  4. While our heroes were entering this dump, they met with a disturbing sight. It even made them, busy and preoccupied as they were, shocked and serious for all of a moment. Inside a chamber with a glass wall were trapped two women, clad in harem-like costumes, standing/sitting in calf-high water. One of the women seemed to be unconscious (or resigned to her fate). The other pleaded with folded hands to our heroes to save her.

Did they? They did, right? After beating the villain and rescuing the heroine and singing the song and dancing the dance, they did rescue these women, right?

So wrong.

The poor, beautiful, scantily-clad women about to be tortured were just details in the set-up. Adding colour, you know.

Not very funny, this. And really, really, not OK.

 

 

Ode to a Universal Phenomenon

Lower your voice and widen your eyes;

Punctuate your words with gasps and sighs;

Throw furtive glances behind your back—

If you do it well, you may have a knack.

Giggle in glee every other sentence;

You’ve shocked and you’ve thrilled your eager audience.

A dash of colour here, gory details there;

God forbid that you’d ever be unfair.

Today’s best friend may be tomorrow’s subject,

It’s a story well-told, so who would object?

I can see you can’t wait; to share you’re itching;

Let’s bring it on, then, start the day with ________.

The Order

I sat, waiting. Nervous eyes, frozen body, pounding heart. I sat waiting in a pool of blood. Why do they scream so, I wondered, my friends and family and strangers, while they are butchered? Did they not know it was coming? But then a hand reaches for me and I feel like screaming, too. No, not yet. They want me alive. So they tie my feet and hold the bunch in a tight grip and as I hang upside down, I start my scream. I don’t know how long or far we travel. I’m always tied-feet-up-head-down, and always screaming, except when I am too exhausted. Once, they stop and put me down sideways, and I freeze again, wondering. Wondering. What now?

Nothing but a recommencement of the same. An upside-down busy world and automatic screams. Finally, after the longest and giddiest journey, we stop, and it comes. At the softest part of my neck.

I hope you enjoyed the kebabs.

Animation Films Crossword

Merry Christmas!

animation-crossword-blank

 

Clues:

Across:

2: How Nemo and Dory keep us busy (7)

6: Can you believe that they have a university as well as an incorporation? (8)

12: Destination of an unlikely but really enthusiastic police officer (8)

13: Think blue, yellow and glasses (7)

Down:

1: A leonine adaption of Hamlet? (4)

3: Out now – Hollywood’s take on psychoanalysis (6)

4: They came, they melted, they dawned, they drifted and they collided (6)

5: What do they do home alone? (4)

6: The latest of the lot, following in the footsteps of Brave (5)

7: Cuddliest warrior ever (5)

8: If you have one of these, then you’ll really need a training manual (6)

9: But it may melt your heart (6)

10: You’ve seen it in 2016, but it started as a ____ as long ago as 1894 (4)

11: A scientist’s daughter enters the world of tiny creatures who protect the forest (4)

 

Solution:

animation-crossword-solution

 

Clipart: pixabay