Fiction | Arguments and Doubts – Nivedita Barve

Illustration: Debu Barve

Barve explores friendship through the lens of everyday argument and eerie magic. Two old men Bhau and Appa discuss the mundane occurrences of everyday life – tiny spoons, a stolen scooter, the right way to make tea. They are overshadowed by the grief of Appa’s wife’s passing and haunted by the apparent supernatural qualities of medicine packs belonging to the deceased. This story doesn’t attempt to make a larger point. Rather, it gives the reader a break by just giving them a puzzle drenched in the light of the comforting camaraderie of two cribbing men. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

It was always late morning in the house, no matter how many windows were open, no matter what was playing on the television, no matter how stale the newspaper felt in his hands. His chair was right by the window. For a moment, he looked at the shabby Umbar tree in the yard and thought about why time behaved erratically in his house. It was an interesting idea because he knew he would never find an answer to it. He was not the kind of man who saw such things well. Then Bhau, his friend of forty-seven years, entered the house, carefully placing his left foot inside the doorsill, and Appa thought ‘What a hypochondriac’ and forgot all about the nature of time.

            ‘What did you bring bananas for?’ Appa said.

But Bhau would not speak before he had survived the dangers of the doorsill. Twelve years back, he had fractured his left femur, and even though it had healed well, he accorded great consideration to the injury.

            ‘Does the leg hurt even now?’ Appa said.

‘I don’t know. But I am sixty-three years old. I am not taking any risks. And the bananas are fruit,’ Bhau said.

‘What do you mean? I know bananas are fruit,’ Appa said.

‘The wife said, take some fruit if you are going to see Appa. So here take it, fruit.’

Bhau held the thin plastic bag in front of Appa’s face.

‘And your choice of fruit is banana? Since you have to keep on harping about it, I am sixty-one, and I have diabetes.’

‘Don’t keep talking about your diabetes forever. I’ve read somewhere that bananas are good for the bones, and they are also fruit,’ Bhau said.

            Appa grunted, pulled the newspaper closer to his face and started reading. Bhau left the bananas on the teapoy and sat in the opposite chair. He picked up the supplement of the same paper. The house was littered with papers because Appa didn’t know what to do with them. What he knew was that Kumud would have hated the clutter if she had been around. His foot ruffled a sheaf, and underneath he noticed dust had collected like it does in abandoned houses. He raised his hand and looked at it. He wanted to see if his fingernails had grime, but there was none.

            The house was one half of a twin bungalow. Vinu lived in the other half and she, of course, did not live alone. She had two boys, three and five years old, a quiet husband, and a talkative mother-in-law. Kumud used to make frequent trips to that side, to give a bowl full of something, or for a word of gossip. Now it was Vinu who made numerous trips to this side of the bungalow.

            Appa remembered Vinu had once tried to go around the house stacking up all the newspapers, but she had not succeeded. A few days later, the papers had appeared again on all the flat surfaces in the house. Now Vinu had taken to complaining about the Umbar and how it was invading the bungalow and how its fruits were leaving streaks on her husband’s new car. ‘Vinu is just like her father,’ Appa thought. The man had been Appa’s cousin, now dead, but he was well remembered for his acidic tongue.

            ‘So where are you going to live now?’ Bhau said.

‘What do you mean where?’ Appa said.

‘The wife was saying now you will go and live with your son. I hadn’t thought of it like that. But the wife knows these things,’ Bhau said.

‘Your wife seems to know far too much than is required,’ Appa said.

‘Yes, it’s true. She is wise like that. She says, right now you are not thinking of these things. You are still grieving. It’s been only two months. But later, you will feel lonely. Also, how will you keep the house? She says it’s not easy for men,’ Bhau said.

            Bhau was looking at the newspapers on the floor. Appa thought the mess was perhaps too much for Bhau. If it kept piling up like this, one day it might bury Bhau under the paper mound. He was a short man, after all. The thought was oddly satisfying. Perhaps Bhau was thinking about it too. He pulled his legs up and sat cross-legged on the chair. Then Vinu walked in with two cups of tea and Appa forgot about the possibilities with the newspapers.

            ‘I saw Bhau Uncle come in, so I brought tea for both of you,’ she said.

Vinu talked for a few minutes with both of them, and in that time she tried to dust the TV and the showcase in a single wave of the dust-cloth which she always seemed to carry with her. Then she reminded Appa that she was going to Mumbai for a few days since the kids had summer holidays, but the cook would still make lunch and dinner for Appa. When Vinu left, the two men put their cups down without drinking. Appa went into the kitchen and came back with the sugar-tin. He added two spoons to his cup and to Bhau’s cup as well.

            ‘Do you mean you are going to live here all by yourself, buying groceries and doing all those

other things that go with it?’ Bhau said.

‘Why? What’s the problem?’ Appa said.

‘Do you know anything about it? Can you at least make tea?’ Bhau said.

‘Why do you need tea? You are already drinking one,’ Appa said.

Bhau shook his head as if he was talking to a stubborn cat.

            ‘Your son will force you to live with him. When Wahini fell ill, the wife thought he was going to ask you both to go live with him and your daughter-in-law. Cancer is not a simple thing,’ Bhau said.

‘Why should we have left our house and gone to another city? The boy has been asking us to do it for a long time, but I like to live here. I was going to look after Kumud. Look at the table. Those are all her medicines. I had prepared a bag for each day and marked them with time and food instructions and everything. I know cancer is not simple. I had prepared for that,’ Appa said.

            Bhau nodded his head. Both of them dropped their newspapers. They drank tea and did not speak for some time. Appa thought about the time when he had waited outside the ICU hoping they would let Kumud out soon, but he had gone on waiting. She had died of post-operative complications. Gone, just like that. He remembered the glass windows of the ICU had faint smears on the outside. He had pressed his forehead on the glass thinking about the smears, without realising that it had to be someone like him who had been here before, who must have left these signs behind like documentations of grief.

            ‘What are you going to do with these?’ Bhau said.

He had gone to the dining table and was looking at the little bags of medicines.

            ‘What is there to do?’ Appa said.

‘You might want to throw them away before you move out of the house,’ Bhau said.

‘Get lost Bhau. Don’t show me your face again,’ Appa howled.

The next morning, Appa and Bhau met outside the Udupi joint, which was drowning in young people. It was dreadful that people had started labelling old things as retro. Appa and Bhau had to wait for a table to become free. They complained loudly about having to stand and hoped to drive away a pair of college girls from their table. But the girls did not budge. The two men kept standing.

            ‘A strange thing happened yesterday,’ Appa said.

Bhau raised his eyebrows. Appa fished out a little plastic bag from his pocket and held it up for him.

‘Look,’ Appa said.

‘Little spoons. I have never seen such little spoons before. What will you eat with them?’ Bhau said.

‘These are not for eating. These are the tiny spoons they put in the kitchen spice box. I know because I was looking for turmeric to put on a paper cut and Vinu said I will find it in the kitchen. But forget that, look at the bag,’ Appa said.

Bhau stooped a little and made himself shorter as he peered into his friend’s hand.

            ‘It is one of your medicine bags,’ he said.

‘Not mine, Kumud’s bag. I haven’t touched these things, since, you know, she left,’ Appa said.

‘So these are Kumud Wahini’s spoons?’ Bhau said.

‘I don’t know. I just saw this in the middle of all the other medicine bags. What do you think it means?’ Appa said.

‘I don’t know. But I can ask the wife,’ Bhau said.

‘No! Don’t bring her into it,’ Appa said.

‘Have you not understood anything about marriage yet?’ Bhau said.

            Before Appa could say anything to that, one of the girls who had been hogging the table began weeping. She did not make any noise, but her shoulders seemed sad, her eyes were bloated, and her sorrow somehow felt like a sound. The two men looked at the girls, bewildered, unsure about what they should do. But the girls dropped some money on the table and left, one of them still weeping and the other holding her hand. So just like that Appa and Bhau got their table.

            They sat in silence. Bhau opened his mouth a couple of times to say something but didn’t actually speak. Appa looked at him but couldn’t think of anything to say either. Maybe it was the money the girls had left on the table which was making them uneasy. Appa looked at the entrance with a vague expectation of seeing the girls again, and he did see two girls, but these were not the same ones. These two were laughing. Then a notion came upon him.

            ‘I think the medicine tablets have turned into these spoons,’ he said.

‘You are going mad, Appa,’ Bhau said.

Appa shook his head. He stopped the passing waiter and asked him to get a plate of idlis and a cup of filter coffee.

‘The same for me,’ Bhau said.

            ‘What about that time when your scooter got stolen?’ Appa said.

‘What about it? I got it back, didn’t I?’ Bhau said.

‘Yes, but how did you find it? Seventeen days later, under the bridge with a garland of hundred rupee notes hanging around its neck. So many people must have passed it by, and no one seemed to see the money,’ Appa said.

‘That was a bad time. It is true. There was that long strike in the factory, half a month’s salary gone, and on top of it, the scooter was stolen. And then I found it just like that with all that money. Now I think, what if it never got stolen? What if my mind had been wandering with all those troubles?’ Bhau said.

‘And now it’s screwed on tight in its place?’ Appa said.

            The waiter deposited the idlis and coffee on the table and took away the notes the girls had left. The two men ate. Appa tried to remember Bhau as he was in school, then later in college, in his forties and his fifties. But he could only see him as he was now. No matter how much he tried, Bhau was always sixty-three years old in his mind. Then he tried to think of how he himself had looked and realised he didn’t remember that either. It jolted him, and he spilt his coffee into the saucer. He felt remorseful, and when the bill came, he paid it with great vehemence even though Bhau kept pushing his hand away and tried to pay it himself. By the time they had stepped outside the restaurant, it had become late morning.

            ‘OK, Appa, I owe you one,’ Bhau said.

‘For a plate of idlis and coffee? Now you have started keeping tab of such things?’ Appa said.

‘No, no. I owe you for the scooter. You never questioned me on what happened with it. I will believe the medicines have turned into tiny spoons,’ Bhau said.

Two days later when Bhau came by the house, Appa was holding a plastic bag with buttons in it, and such buttons as they had never seen in one place before: gold plated ones, simple white ones with four holes, black ones, silver buttons with carving on them, and pearls pretending to be buttons. Bhau took the bag and peered into it. Then he went to the dining table and examined all the bags. There were fourteen of them, twelve contained tablets and capsules and other complicated medications, one bag had tiny spoons, and the last had these buttons.

            ‘Maybe Kumud Wahini’s stuff got mixed up with the medicine things?’ Bhau said.

‘Not possible. Kumud would never use such extravagant buttons in her sewing. She was not that kind of a woman. She was rather neat,’ Appa said.

            Then Appa started thinking, was Kumud really so neat? He went into the kitchen and looked

at the pots, pans and things. He had not moved anything in the kitchen either. It was like how Kumud had left it. Yes, she was neat, the kitchen corroborated. Then he thought about that one time they had gone to Alibaug on a trip. On the beach, Appa had become terrified when he saw Kumud fall into the water, but when he rushed to her, he saw that she had just been playing in the waves. Her saree had gathered sand, her hair had sand, even her eyes were watering with it. But she had kept on laughing.

            He looked back at Bhau and saw he was still lost in admiring the buttons.

That night Appa woke up at an empty hour. He didn’t know what had woken him, but he saw a glow of light on the dining table. He was frightened. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. He wished Kumud had not gone to the doctor for her stomach ache. Everything had been OK before that. The doctor had turned the stomach ache into something malignant. He wished she were here now. She would know what the light in the medicines meant, and she would know what to do with all those newspapers. Then he thought he was thinking just like Bhau. That made him furious. But he also remembered a teenage boy in khaki pants and a white shirt bicycling down the old wooden bridge, shivering in the early morning cold. Then another boy pedalled behind him. He didn’t remember their faces, but there was a relief in the memory, which was only an image and not a story. It brought him peace and sleep.

The next day, Appa ignored the bags altogether. But when Bhau came in the evening, he headed straight to the medicine table.

            ‘Hmm, never seen anything like this before,’ he said.

‘I think none of it is happening. We are imagining it. Let us throw it all away,’ Appa said.

‘Are you moving to your son’s house then?’ Bhau said.

            Appa turned his back to him and went to sit in his armchair. He unfolded the newspaper and began reading. Bhau picked the supplement of the same paper and sat in the opposite chair, but he could not focus on it. He kept fidgeting and making waves in the newspapers that had gathered by his feet.

            ‘OK. I will not talk about your son’s house. But I am going to stay here tonight, and we are going to watch the bags and see it happen,’ Bhau said.

            ‘What? I don’t want to see anything. What if it is dangerous?’ Appa said.

Bhau thought about it for a moment. He passed a hand through his hair which was still as black as it had been when they had been in school.

            ‘I am sixty-three, and you are sixty-one, maybe its time we started seeing things for what they are?’ he said.

            Then he began arranging the bags in a neat row, making sure all of them were visible. Then he returned to his chair and now really started reading the advertisements in the supplement. Appa fidgeted in his chair for some time, and then he began reading too. What else was there to do?

That night they turned the two chairs so that they faced the dining table. They looked at the bags in silence, their eyes darting from one to the other. The house had grown shabbier in the last few days,

now that even Vinu was away. The dining table was the neatest spot in the whole house. Then Bhau started talking about that time when he had gotten his leg fractured, and that made them sleepy, and they dozed off.

Next morning, when Appa woke up, he saw Bhau staring at the third bag from the left. He went to him and saw what was in the bag — a piece of fresh ginger. He hesitated for a moment then he took it out and smelled it. It was ginger, alright. He felt exhausted. He thought the late morning was such a lonely time. It keeps stretching, and there is nothing left to do in it but to lose yourself into the goings-on of the world, which was nothing but bad news anyway. Then he thought it was something about this particular morning which felt ambiguous in some way, or maybe it felt like that because the kids weren’t screaming next doors, or perhaps it had gotten ambiguous even before that. He didn’t want to think further back. It was better to lose yourself in the bad news of the world instead. He looked at Bhau, who was still baffled by the ginger. Appa knew Bhau was going to insist on bringing his wife into the discussion. But that would not do. It was a matter between him and Kumud. Perhaps Bhau also came into it in an oblique way with his arguments and doubts. Appa kneaded his eyes as if it was essential to see clearly for what he was going to say.

            ‘Let’s make ginger tea,’ he said.

            Bhau looked up in surprise but did not argue. They hunted for the pan that Kumud always used for boiling the tea. They discussed at length the amount of water and milk that should go in it. The only thing they agreed upon was the sugar. At the very end, they grated the ginger and added it to the tea. When they poured it into the cups, they saw that it was over-boiled, watery and dark. They carried their two chairs outside, away from the newspapers and put them under the Umbar tree. Then they enjoyed the tea, inhaling the smell of fresh ginger, and argued about what the next bag of medicine was going to bring them.

Nivedita Barve lives in Hyderabad, India, where she is working on her first novel. She is a software engineer by profession, who loves writing fiction as much as she enjoys writing code. She has a Masters in Multimedia Applications and Virtual Environments from the University of Sussex. She is a member of ‘Bangalore Writers Workshop’.

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