June 19, 2014
Go to Ten House...A short story by Chandrakant Bakshi (Translated by the author himself)
The time was around ten in the morning of day before yesterday. The horse 'Silver' shied and kicked Asan in forehead and he had a hemorrhage. A PWD truck was going in the direction of Varahnagar and we took Asan and the dandy-man with us. The dandy-man had run up to tell us the news. Sarvar, the owner of the horse Silver, doubled up to the police station and tool shelter, out of fright. Asan died on the way, in the rambling truck. Around ten, when Silver kicked Asan, I and sister were going to Dawn Market to buy tomatoes and Papa had folded up the newspaper and was cleaning his pipe in the sun.
Asan was nine years old, the only son of my elder Sister and he had a fierce attack of polio when he was four. The polio's aftereffects lasted for some years, and his left leg became scrawny and he developed a limp. He was studying in a Bombay school, and we called him up though his vacation was yet to start. Papa's cardiogram was clear but the doctor had advised him a change for he was badly anemic. Papa asked, may I smoke a pipe and the doctor said yes and Papa collected two tins of pipe tobacco and on way back, I posted a letter to Sister because near Varahnagar a friend of Papa's boss had a cottage which was going to remain unrented in the season. The cottage was a way off the Dawn Market but almost on the bus route and nights on the end, trucks, loaded with timber from Kichhama town rumbled along heavily down to the saw mills in foothills. In cooler months it snowed and thawing waters from mountainsides flowed eight miles downhill to fall in a tributary of Kishenganga river. Papa liked this balmy place and hoped Sister would like it. She was coming back after four years from the smelly, cramped air of Bombay.
Sister was three years elder to me and had married at an early age and when I failed in my last year at the school, she consoled me, come to Bombay and stay with me and I shall ask your Brother-in-law to get you admitted to some college. I could never finish the school and had to make Bombay off and on and one afternoon when I almost stormed in her home I found her gluing the jacket of a torn library book and that she was pregnant. She asked, you are very much pulled down? No. How's Papa? Okay. And I guessed that she was carrying and was not happy with her in-laws. A little chatting and the inevitable cropped up, she started asking me when I was getting married and all that. Not now, I said. She almost made a face the way she used to do when we were small and I was her kid brother and she, the big Sister. If not now, then when? After you grow old, no? Sister's voice had the shine of scrubbed brass utensils and the warmth of coloured sun straining through broken glass ventilators. I looked around the bare walls and said unemotionally, why this bother? You select a girl, marry, become a father, make children sensible humans and then work overtime to earn more and you see, these hard times..... and midway she cut in, if I would like to have tea and I remember I had told her she was to have a girl this time.
It was a boy and we were pleased and Papa sent a list of long Sanskrit names, none of which the Brother-in-law liked and he named the boy Asan. For a while Sister and Brother-in-law were having it good and Papa was satisfied that his daughter was happy. He went to see the grandchild, gave him eleven rupees and came back and told me the boy's face is like his father's. I have disinterested, I said I like a girl as a first child and Papa blew up. He said you have to worry for a daughter all her life till she dies, her married life, kids, illnesses; but a boy once he starts earning, stops being a liability.... I told him girls get faster and better jobs these days, boys don't and Papa didn't like it and said dryly, it is because you cannot earn.
And when we heard Asan had polio, all of us had almost the physical pain of a stab and Papa started bringing ancient Ayurvedic treatises from the public library of the temple, studied late into the nights, scribbled directions and sent to Sister. The Brother-in-law wrote furious letters to me which I never passed over to Papa because his health was failing. Gradually, the first impact of polio was over and his muscles responded to treatment—though his legs remained scrawny—and he learned to climb up and down the stairs with heavy leather and beaten metal boots. Sister massaged his legs before sending him to bed and the Brother-in-law did not talk to her. We got news about this tacit break between husband and wife much later because Sister wrote only about Asan and her school (she always called the kindergarten a "school") and how he could recite nursery rhymes and did even additions of two-digit sums in English, saying "Carry the one.... go to ten house!" Papa was thrilled and was intensely proud of this and used to tell it around. Sister sent an underexposed snap of Asan taken on the Hanging Gardens, with a smudgy sea as a background and tow frontal teeth missing from a full boyish smile. Papa studied the snap and said the boy's face looked like his father's and I didn't object because, essentially, his opinion was correct. I could see, Sister deliberately did not send a full size snap and Papa was so happy with the face that he skipped over the boy's physical disability.
When Sister brought Asan he could walk with a limp and one leg was shorter than the other and she pulled out an 8 oz. Bottle of some frozen oil from her suitcase and I guessed that Asan's massage was a regular affair. I asked about it and she said, she doesn't have to massage him regularly but since this was a cool place it was advisable to keep the bottle around. Papa had reminded me to take a big bottle of brandy, in case of cold or a wound, it would come in handy if anything else was not available, and I had wrapped the tightly-corked bottle in my soiled pyjamas and tucked it at the bottom of my cane picnic-box.
It was afternoon when we came to the place and the mountainsides smelled washed green with last night's rains and water was clear and air was breathing raw with the scent of wild flowers bursting through stony soil. A bus from Luxmanpur, its metallic body awash with a down-pour on way, throbbed by side of road. The sky's spotless blueness had gone farther up and sun shone on the telegraph poles and wires which swooped down in an arc down the lush valley. The tops of the rolling mountains caught the sinking sun and the chill from across the mountain ranges had started sweeping down. The first smokes of the evening undulated around lazing cottages, under the load of gathering cold.
The cottage was pleasant and Sister liked it and she made steaming hot coffee for us and Asan asked on the table, Uncle, why there is no afternoon here?—for which I had no explanation. Sister explained that the sky was overcast with rain clouds and sun was cool here and roads had no asphalt and so they didn't run in sun as in the cities. And there was greenery. The Garhwali chowkidar said that during season trucks run on this road all day long but these days timber-chopping stops and the men from foothills climb up the mountain with their sturdy mountain ponies and freshly painted boats for season. Before the gathering of dusk, mountaintops were lost in swirling mists and fireplaces blazed in corners, chowkidar brought vegetables for next morning. Asan saw long, silken-haired goats grazing in slopes vanish in dark. Sister took out Asan's pullover she had knitted two years back and which was frayed and discoloured from elbows. Papa's sunken cheeks exuded a new pink glow. Rain started and filled the windows and they had to be shut which Asan did not like. Straight rain spattered on stone and heavy wet branches swung in winds blowing down the slopes and noises made Asan agog with ecstasy like a colt. Before the fire papa told Asan child stories, listed to his English poems and after he went to bed, Papa talked to me about my work and then the problem of the Brother-in-law came up and Sister sidetracked the subject. Lightening and rolling thunder and the crash of split branches woke Asan up and he cried and Sister slept with him and we switched off the lights, staring at the ceiling and trying to sleep listening to wet noises of creeping insects near the fire place. The place was new and this was the first night and sleep came in spells, punctuated by someone's switching the light on for a while or by small movements outside the window. I slept late in the morning but Sister woke up early, out of habit, and air was light and warm with sun and smelling of washed stones and timber boles and the edges of wooly clouds shone luxuriantly white. Under the oozy walls of the cottage lay dead night insects.
Papa bought red and gold khubanis for Asan, who was still asleep and a handsome horseman came up with his horse. I asked him his name, he was Sarvar, he talked authoritatively about horses. His horse was numbered forty-one and he had come from Moradabad. The horse had a white coat spangled with black dots and its legs were fuzzy white and Sarvar said, a sahib had named it Silver. He had fixed a new saddle for the season, Sarvar told me, and it smelled of varnish and new brass buckles. Only the saddle had cost him sixty rupees, apart from other things and though the horse was new it did not shy from speeding buses and was tall and had a snowy tuft of white hair falling through waving ears of his forehead. Sarvar bent a limping front leg of Silver and with a twinge took out a chip stuck in the cleavage of the hoof and in the meantime, Asan had come out and seen this wonderingly. Seeing him, Sarvar urged me to hire the horse for "Baba" but Sister said, the horse was tall for him. Sarvar continued praising his animal and Asan attentively stared at the horse lower its neck, shake head, twirl the pointed ears. This was the road Sarvar daily took his horse in the early morning, today he had been to the auction for fodder and was late.
Sarvar took the horse and four rustic bearers of a cushioned dandy strode up, offering a ride to Sister, chanted, "Dandy, Mem Sahib." She shook her head and they left and Asan asked, mummy, were they selling candy? We all laughed. Asan's two frontal teeth were new and uneven, in Papa's words the "teeth of milk" were gone and "teeth of curds" had sprouted up and they were to become glinty and smooth with time. It was ridiculous to find someone addressing Sister as Mem Sahib and she looked at me and both of us spontaneously laughed out and I said, "They called you Mem Sahib, did you hear?" and an idea came to me that the dandy-wallahs might have taken us to be husband and wife....
The sun opened up and Asan ate khubanis and asked me, Uncle, what do they call this in English? Apricots, I said, and he almost yelled, yes, yes, we have apricots in my reader. The rays of the sun were straight and warm and all of us sat down in heavy cane sofas lined with leather strips, the road winded up before us with the stone walls on either side and behind us on the rocky heights loomed fungus-covered boles of chid and deodar trees. Last night's rainy wind had chipped a huge chunk of bark in a tree in front of me and the clean wood showed in sun. Papa drew out a tin of biscuits and Sister, a bottle multivitamin tablets. She unscrewed, and passed two tablets to Asan, I smiled and said, if you go on taking tablets like this, you will grow fatter than I am. Asan complained, mummy, you always give omelette in Bombay, and vegetarian Papa listened, munching his biscuit, nodding with a secretive glance. I smiled, you have started eating eggs! Bad boy—Sister wanted to say something, and Asan retorted, you are a bad boy! Sister glowered at him, this is the way you talk to your uncle? And the breakfast was over.
Within three days Asan was free with me, he wore my outsized shirts. The shirt-tails covered him up completely and he scampered around screaming, I am an Arab, Papa! Papa asked him if he had seen an Arab in Bombay and he said there's a story about the Arab and his camel in my reader. He looked funny, like someone between a fairy and a clown, and made faces and Papa couldn't resist laughing. Sister started telling about his pranks, when his first tooth came out, he told her to keep it in her purse. If Sister was worked up, and called him names, he would jump on her. Papa complained that of late, he sticks my pipe between his teeth like an adult. If you do like that your teeth will become black and you will suffocate. Papa was never short-tempered and talked to children with understanding. Asan said excitedly, yes, Papa, I had a parrot and one night I gave it bread to eat and in the morning it was dead. Parrots don't know how to eat bread, no, Papa? Sister and I burst out laughing but Papa quietly explained to him that the parrot does not have teeth and the passage in its throat is very narrow...
I used to go to market to get newspaper for Papa. Sister cooked, Papa, made Asan sit before him and made additions since he was poor at it. I had told him that he has to study in vacation, Sister said. He wrote with my pen and when Papa did not watch, he would stealthily swoop his smudgy fingers on the back of the cane sofa and sensing that I have marked him, he would goggle and give me a mischievous, toothy smile. Which was better, Bombay or here? Here. I asked him, whom you like more—Mummy or Uncle? Both, he replied. Papa asked, you don't like me, Asan, and he said, I like you, too.
We had a wonderful time for around ten days; he sat in the dandy with Papa, collected dogs around him and threw them strips of roti and watched them lap water from a stone trough. Two fuzzy puppies scampered around the cottage throughout the whole day and Asan stole biscuits from Papa's tin and fed them. He insisted on sitting in Papa's chair and enjoyed cleaning his pipe and slept with my pen in his shirt pocket. Sister warned him not to take my pen and I stopped Sister and she said I was spoiling the kid. Papa coolly answered for me, every uncle has a right to spoil the nephew. Then laughter, and finally, Asan's query, what's Papa saying?
The day of our return came around and Asan asked Sister, Mummy, why don't you make tomato soup and I said tomatoes don't come in this season. We would sure get you your tomato soup before we leave this place, Papa told him understandingly and then, turning to us—if you don't get good tomatoes, get him a tin of soup. Asan shrieked in approval. The horseman Sarvar was his friend and every morning while playing with puppies or hopping after chowkidar's cocks he would look at the horse Silver going up and once again Sarvar asked me, Sa'ab, may 1 take Baba for a round? And Sister looked at the tall horse disapprovingly, Papa said boys must be made tough, and Sarvar said with his customary sweetness, Sir, my horse is very well-behaved though this is its first season. Sarvar patted its satin neck, Silver ruffled its coat, stamped third foot, flying a dry cake of earth and swung tail onto both flanks. I said, Asan, go, sit on it and he tugged at his mummy's saree. Then he tried to offer, an apricot to Silver and Sarvar said, my horse does not eat apricots, it eats cherries. Asan seriously asked me to bring cherries and I joked, eyeing a couple of mules coming up on the bend, that only mules eat cherries. He gazed at a number of loaded army mules climbing up in twos, nosing the edges, of the road heavily and as they came up, he asked me, Uncle, do they eat cherries? Sister smiled, he is kidding you, son....
From the booking office of the Bus Company on the road to the "whispering valley" I bought tickets for our return, Asan's books were packed first because he was telling us that he won't read his school books anymore. Sister warned him that she would tell everything to his teacher in school. What would you say? Asan asked, I would tell her that Asan hasn't learnt anything, chased cocks, played with puppies, chatted with horsemen and broken his uncle's pen and.... Asan made a face, if you do that I won't come to Bombay. This made Sister blow up and I toned her down.
Last day the sky came low, the cold wind swept down the mountains, rattled in the cottage, dust blew as in plains, then a cloudburst cleaned up everything and Papa suggested a massage of Asan's leg. Sister drew out the bottle of frozen oil but Papa remembered brandy and asked me to take it from the picnic box. The wind had a chilly bite and Sister put the pull-over on him and rubbed brandy on his leg. Asan was complaining about a numb in the leg and brandy quite relieved him and he limped about the place. He wore the new riding slacks brought from Bombay for the first time since he hadn't rode a pony so far. He is spoiling the new slacks in home, Sister protested and Papa ruled that since it was chilly, it was advisable to let him play in home. We set out for Dawn Market, Sister and I, and Asan reminded me, "Tomatoes, Uncle!" Papa also said, it's cold, bring tomatoes for soup and..... bring green chilies and pounded black pepper. You will get a ready alkathene pack of pounded black pepper. I said, please do not worry so much, Papa, we shall manage it. When, we started, Asan was insisting on cleaning Papa's pipe and Papa snatched the cleaner from him. He chased a hen around the chowkidar's hut, Sarvar was coming up with his Silver trailing behind him, and uncouth small boy was hawking wild khubanis under a deodar tree and dandymen were squatting and smoking rolled-leaf cigarettes in the first shine. Asan ran up to Papa and borrowed twenty paise to buy Khubanis, Sarvar stopped the horse to chat with the dandymen, the boy selling khubanis was weighing, a dandyman threw a burning stub of a rolled-leaf cigarette, Asan picked it and pressed it against the flank of the animal, Silver, it shied wildly, buckled, and flung a back kick that landed on Asan's forehead, between the eyes. I and Sister had just reached the Dawn Market for tomatoes and one sprinting dandyman came up, halted and gasped, Sir, the horse has kicked Baba on the head...
(Translated from Gujarati by the Author)
(Taken from The Contemporary Gujarati Short Stories, Edited by: Dr. Kishore Jadhav)