Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Finally, it's here, the next chapter of Pawar Guest House. The short story within was born while I was on a trip to Himachal Pradesh, and written when I was on a trip to Rajasthan, under less-than-ideal conditions. The word file where I'm writing the stories is now 110 kb.... some day it'll be a full book. :)

Chapter 6

It is now nearly a week since I read the diary, here at the Pawar Guest House. In the days that passed I struggled to come to terms with the diary’s contents, and even now, have not quite accepted the idea they lay out. Admittedly, this cannot be a new idea; browsing through any good public library will give me the technical word for it, will give me accounts of people faced with this problem, and how they dealt with it.

But… as the diary itself says, there’s no way my experience can be exactly the same as that of those other writers, or even of the person who wrote that diary. So that, even in this, my account of the conversations I had with the old lady, I cannot be sure that you are actually reading what I mean to write.

That evening after I returned, I had just the strength to copy down the contents of the diary, which she’d lent me. What we talked about after that, I felt, there was no point writing. Fortunately, the feeling has passed somewhat now, though it touches everything I say and write. Whatever twisted meaning it may convey to a reader, it should, hopefully, remind me of what actually happened afterwards.

- - -

I finished reading the diary, flipped through the remaining entries ( Bread – 8 Rs., Lunch – 20 Rs. … ) and closed the diary. My thoughts were in a jumble, somehow the diary had awakened the one demon I’d always fought against – the fear of not being understood – and proclaimed it victorious without a doubt.

She said,” You’ll probably not believe it, but I know what you’re feeling. You’ll get over it, in time. But this feeling, this idea is going to colour your thoughts and stories for a long, long time.”

I got up abruptly. “It’s…getting late. I need to get back.”

“Yes, of course you must. Come back only when you want to. I’d like to hear what you think about the diary, after you’ve had the time to mull it over.”

I walked back, through the deserted, sodium-vapour-lit streets, lost in my thoughts. She had been right. All the stories I’d remembered, all the tales I’d planned to tell, now seemed so useless against the one big cancer of an idea that kept pulling me in. I was alone, so alone forever, as alone as every other person I’d ever met. Just like every other person.

- - -

I don’t know why today, I’ve come back to the Guest House. Certainly, if she asks me, I have nothing to tell. Perhaps it is inertia, or perhaps some subconscious hope of finding some distraction from my thoughts.

Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to expect anything from me, either. As soon as I sit down, she says,” I’m pretty sure you don’t have anything to tell today. So for today, we’ll do what you originally wanted when you came here. I’ll tell the stories.

“Let me start with the reason why I came here. I’m not originally from here, I was born in Himachal Pradesh, among the hills…”

- - - - - -

It took a while before anyone recognized Anand. After all, he hadn’t been back to the village for nearly twenty years. He just stood there, where he’d gotten off the bus, as it rolled on, leaving a pall of dust and smoke. As the dust settled, Anand looked around him. Memories stirred in him as he recognized places, things, that hadn’t changed since he’d left this place.

He came out of his reverie with a jerk. Two old men in the dhaba opposite were looking at him curiously. The one with the red turban had a strange, doubtful look on his face. Anand picked up his traveling bag and walked across the road to the dhaba. He went up to the old men and said to the red-turbanned one,” Namaste, Ishwar Kaka. Remember me?”

Ishwar Kaka’s face cleared. He said,” Anand beta, it is you, then? I wasn’t… sure!” And a laugh broke free from him and he stood up clumsily to embrace the lost son of the village.

Anand asked him,” Is the old room by the temple still there? Is Ramdhari Kaka still the priest?” The old man looked at him, averted his face. “Why do you want to go there, beta? Come to my home, I’ve got a pucca home now. Why not stay with me?” But Anand was already shaking his head. “No, Kaka… next time, I’ll definitely stay with you. For tonight, let me go to the temple.”

“Then… you are only here for a day?”

“Yes, Kaka.”

“But… your land? I thought you’d come to sell off your land, or to till it?”

A faint smile crossed Anand’s face. “Some other time, Kaka. This time I’m just here to remember.” And he set off on the strange yet familiar path to the temple.

Ramdhari Kaka still was the priest, and he, of course, remembered Anand. The room was much smaller than he remembered it, and dustier. But it was empty, and Anand didn’t mind the dust. He bought a chatai from the Kirana shop and pread it out in its usual corner under the window. He rested there for a while, waiting for the evening.

Meanwhile the news of his arrival had spread like wildfire. Everyone, from Darbari Seth, the owner of the Chamunda lodge, to mad old Babu, cavorting in the freezing river water, knew Anand was back.

Evening is a very long period in the Himachal villages. The sun goes down below the mountains very early, but darkness arrives only when it is well and truly gone. People stop working in the tarraced fields, shops start closing, and only the groups of children scamper about on the streets. Their parents are too busy gossiping in the fading light at the village chaupal, or in the temple courtyard. Today, for some reason, the chaupal was deserted, and everyone seemed to converge on the temple courtyard for their gossip. People stole glances through the open door by the temple’s side, where they could just make out Anand’s feet in the gloom, and see him occasionally turn to his side.

He finally got up and came out of the room yawning. He didn’t seem surprised to see the people sitting in the courtyard, but walked over to the pot of water by the wall, drank from it, and sat down leaning against a pillar by the gate. The murmur of discussion rose up again, but hesitantly.

Finally, one old lady asked Anand,” How have you been, beta? We never heard from you after you left.”

“I’ve been alright, Kaki. I found some work in the city and studied through college. Now I have a job in the government.”

Anand felt like a liar, even though it was the truth he’d said. But how could he describe that he hadn’t been all right, that he’d starved so often to pay his fees, how he;d studied under street lamps, how he’d vended tea even after getting his degree, how he’d struggled to get his job. He could still taste the dust in his mouth from the day he’d left the village, in the early morning bus, hiding from everyone, hoping that the bus driver didn’t know who he was. He remembered living in fear, even in the city, fear that someone would recognize him, would take him back.

The old lady said,” I remember the time when you used to help out Vaidji in his work, you’d even made a kaadhaa for me once when I had a fever.”

Though controlling his voice took an effort, Anand spoke pleasantly enough.

“Yes, Kaki. I remember. Of course, Pitaji couldn’t teach me his craft for long. Darbari Seth took care of that.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Darbari Seth hadn’t come to the courtyard (perhaps he’d gone to the chaupal) but his wife was here. Almost everyone present knew Vaidji’s gambling habits, how he’d lost his house and land to Darbari Seth in a long night of drunk gambling. Anand, of course, remembered being woken from his sleep, early in the morning, by a goon, and being dragged out of the house by one arm. He remembered his mother weeping, assuring the goons that they would repay in full, if only they could stay here for a few more days…

Anand continued,” Of course, Ramdhari Kaka let us stay in this room for as long as we needed.”

The listeners shifted uneasily. Most of them could remember shutting out Vaidji ( who was, after all, a southerner, not a Himachali like themselves). Each had told himself that someone else would take these people in, ignoring the pleas audible from outside their doors, over the next few days after Vaidji had lost his home. They had snuggled inside, safe from the freezing cold of the winter.

“But beta, you were all quite comfortable here, and we… we would all have helped you if you’d had any problem.”

Anand’s voice remained calm as he said,” May I ask you a question, Kaki?”

Pausing a moment, he continued,” Does anyone remember the time at which Pitaji died?”

No one answered.

“Of course, no one remembers. No one even knows the time. It took me nearly half the day to get people to take him to the ghat. And no one wanted to do even that. Were you all so afraid of Pneumonia, that you were afraid of touching his body?”

Some of the villagers looked like they wished they handt come here. Morbid curiosity held the rest in a thrall. Even though Anand’s voice was calm, it was clear that he was accusing them, holding them all responsible.

One person stood up. Anand’s voice rang out after him, in the gloom.

“Thakur chacha, how come you’re in such a hurry? Arent you proud of the honour of being the first?”

“The first?” Thakur said roughly, drawn in, in spite of himself. “The first what?”

”The first to call me a ‘kalmunha’ to my face? The first to come with a crowd, to my mother and me, to demand the debts my father had left behind? The first person for whom I worked in the fields, trying to stay alive and repay my debts? You were an inspiration, Chacha, you were an inspiration to so many others who wanted their debts paid!”

Anand’s mind flashed back to his life as it had seemed to be to his ten-year-old mind then…an endless series of fields to be ploughed, grain to be threshed; as a labourer, bound to this village and its people forever… alone except for his mother, who was slowly but surely losing her mind…

She had still had phases of clear thought, and in one of these, late at night, she had woken him up frantically from a deep sleep. She’d stolen some money from a shop that day, and she told him about it as she thrust it into his pocket.

“Run, beta, run away. Don’t worry about me, I am going to die soon. Take the bus that goes to the city, early in the morning. Never come back, beta, never come back…”

He had started to protest, but she had pulled him up and stodd him straight by then. Even before he was fully awake, she was pushing him out of the door. Something struck her then, as she watched him framed against the night of stars, with the silent, sleeping village below it. She grabbed up a small pot of water and handed it to him. “Here, take this. Keep it with you in the bus. I don’t know where you will eat, beta, but atleast you will be free. Now go! Go!” And she had turned him around, towards the road, and slammed the door shut behind him.

He’d stood for a moment, listening to her weeping from behind the door. Then, as if still in a dream, he’d started walking.

Slowly at first, then almost running, he’d walked to the bus stop and hid behind a tree, clutching the unwieldy pot of water to him, jumping at every sound, suspecting every noise was a footfall, expecting a rough hand on his shoulder any minute…

Anand said, “ None of you know this, but the only thing I took from your village was a pot of water.” No one protested at his use of “your village”.

“And, of course, Thakur chacha had already discovered that I was a ‘kalmunha’. I’ve today to fulfil that prophecy, and to repay my debt.”

There was a stir at these words. No one, however, asked him to explain.

“All my life, I’ve been laughing at those stories about kind-hearted villagers helping strangers. All my life, I have had that pot of water, the only thing I got from here, on my mind. Perhaps that pot was what shaped my career.

“I’ve told you that I work for the government. Let me explain what work I do. I work for the Himachal Hydel Power Corporation, and I work for the Survey department. We look for suitable sites to set up Hydel projects – that means dams, Thakur chacha.

“I’m here to announce formally to the village that a big project is going to be set up in this valley.”

“But… that means…”

“Yes.” Anand said. Those close to him could have sworn he was smiling. This village is going to be submerged in a new lake of water in the valley. The government will of course give you suitable replacement homes and land… as it usually does. I’ll be in charge of that as well.”

- - - -