We merely thought we must bury and give Dorsal a good resting place. It was sunshine over the little row-houses abutting Ettines road, the bright weather in Ooty was unusual for July. Not a piece of cloud was upon the sky though it looked blurred and less cerulean. And we decided we will have him with us for some more time, the corpse they said didn’t rot easily at that altitude. We needed a shovel or a crow-bar to dig a pit, it better be deep; for in this part rains pour out heavily and the face of earth isn’t the same after each torrent. For shovel and crow bar we needed to scout around, we didn’t have those tackles at home.
So we decided to wait, it was little consolation that we could spend more time with Dorsal; he was playful alright as long as he lived and spoke his language with pleasing trill. He entertained us thoroughly for he had the gift of gab.
We felt hungry suddenly, grieving makes one hungry, we had not lamented so often in life. We were ten or eleven. We could say on a hunch, being afflicted with sorrow makes the bowels stir, feel shockingly famished. Stomach makes that singular noise which no music instrument has ever succeeded in reproducing.
We checked out the stockpots in the kitchen, the stained Tupperware boxes in the shoulder-size refrigerator, to see if there were the sesame-topped cookies or the salt-batter crispy crunches. The fridge in our house never functioned but served as a cupboard alright. It gave us the feeling we owned a fridge. Mother stashed and kept knick-knacks hidden from us, meant for serving the guests arriving without notice. She had a string of guests, men we never knew, they came and went and did not pay us attention. It was mother they spent time with.
We heard a tennis ball at the concrete porch, we knew Sujay had come with his bat and ball. He lived in the bungalow directly above u. He was tapping the ball on the ground with the cricket bat, the sound puttered and died whenever he missed. His dad was rich for he bought Sujay bats and balls as much as he wanted. Sujay needed someone to play with and so we shut the fridge and scampered up to their lawn through the barbed wire fence.
We played for about an hour and a quarter, once or twice the ball went inside the bush down the bluff. The bush comprised of plants with long, velvet green, wiry leaves, bright yellow blooms appeared over the stems holding out as if it were street lamps. It’s a curse to play in the hills, the ball gets lost most time and often we have nothing else to play with.
The ball was new, the fibrous threads competing over its orbicular surface looked masculine and rich, the smell of rubber was pleasing and stuck on to our fingers. That was a lucky day, for the ball was never lost even once, but Sujay got bored and wanted to return. Enough light was left of the day except that Sujay got bored. He couldn’t middle the ball properly, besides his right limb kept falling off the shoulder-joint every now and then. He had suffered an accident before and that caused him pain. We didn’t know what pain meant, he seemed in acute pain when his limb hung like a dead snake, but he managed to squeeze it back every time.
We felt ravenous after the game, hungry and tired, the weather grew chilly, the gradient of rays from the sun slanted. Beads of sweat dwelling over our nose turned bulky, before they slid, the dry winds absorbed them in a flash. We liked it when sweat evaporated from the skin against the biting cold.
On other days when we didn’t have playthings, we use to skip on the grass using a coir rope. We skipped till we could no longer hold our breath. Then we would stoop forward, bending over our stomach, panting like a race horse. We relished those moments, I can say.
Mother would return only by six thirty or later, she had said. She would bring home prasad from the Shiva temple and give us each a scoop of the sweet porridge from the fold-out-cup made out of Sal leaf. On the days of Pradhosam, the rich devotees brought sweet pongal cooked in cardamom flavored ghee and served those who came to seek Shiva’s favor. My mother always brought us a portion, though it meant standing in the queue.
That was in 1972 when the threat of war with Pakistan loomed over the nation, the residents of Ooty were told to switch off all the electric lights as a precaution, fearing the eventuality in case of an air-raid. The pilot of the enemy aircraft would be able locate our hill-town easily and drop us few shells, we were told. The war preparation required mock-drill, the town was told to switch off the lights if there was a siren from the municipal office, the man with the thandora drum announced. The mock-drill lasted for about an hour each night between six-thirty in the evening to half past seven, the siren operator had to reach home in time for supper, it was discussed. He was a proud man; he could bring the town back to heavenly glory with his second siren. I touched him once, he was not happy about me touching him and I was not happy about him getting annoyed.
We didn’t have electricity in our house and we used kerosene lanterns instead. Mother called the lantern as landher in vernacular, so we called it landher too. The All India Radio had announced that we can use kerosene lanterns during black-out, the light from it would be too feeble for the pilots to learn of our existence with naked eyes. We thought, since we lived in tin-roof houses, the light from landher would leak through the pin-holes directly to the sky and give us away. To be frank we didn’t want to be left out from the rigmarole, of putting off lights during the drill and putting it on. Besides we enjoyed privacy the utter darkness offered, especially on new-moon days. So we never lit the lantern if mother was late from temple or anywhere. We were happy to be by ourselves with no one around; it was a whole world opening before us, unencumbered by checks and castigations of an adult world. Our personal space was like the geometrical, crystalloid honeycomb, ripe with nectar of freedom, amidst unshapely odd-meaning totality of the beehive. We loved the privacy, dwelt on it happily and discovered in it an opportunity to explore. What was it to be like without a stich of cloth on, the congeniality of nakedness we had never experienced before, it spiced us up surely, the liberty to feel oneself and the joy arising out of it.
We waited for our food-thing. In the meantime we thought we will bury Dorsal, we had forgotten he was waiting. The ants, we were not familiar with them or where they live, they had formed an unending line, carrying in their fork-like fore-arms, white and brown colored stuff from near where Dorsal lay all the while we were at play. We traced the line either sides in the dusk of light, at one end we found to our dismay the empty skin of feathers as if Dorsal was a discarded and garbled coat. Little scraps of flesh sticking here and there, but the inner were taken. The head was in order, but it had lost the charm and liveliness when he was wholesome, even after he was dead. It was as if the soul had left Dorsal with every particle.
Dorsal is the Indian Mynah reputed for superior intelligence in the bird kingdom, we found him in the thicket of nose-ring cluster flowers, pink and pale yellow. These flowers spread all over where we set our eyes on in the hills.
Dorsal was a young and helpless babe where we found him, fearing battery of assault from a group of roguish kittens. The mother cat was around licking her paws, but did not pounce over the prey which it could have; we guessed it was one way of training the young ones to hunt. We saved and brought Dorsal home.
We kept Dorsal under our cots confining him, cordoning him off amidst the boxes in which mother stored our possessions. Without bringing his presence to the notice of mother we fed him with banana which he loved and with the insects we gathered from the wild. It went on for a few days, Dorsal was in comfort and safety until mother suspected and found out. Something smelled very foul, Mynahs have the habit of shitting unremittingly. But mother allowed us to keep, she borrowed a cage made of thin metal wire. She knew how to borrow.
We loved our mother and the smell of jasmine she wore along the plait of her hair, she wore them every night before she put us to bed and went for work. We never heard of our father, we didn’t know what father meant. Our friends and neighbor had fathers and fathers were a big bother from what I could gather, they came home drunk and beat up wife and children. When they didn’t come drunk, they asked too many questions, which is even worse. But folks always pitied us for being fatherless and said because of that my mother is like this. We didn’t know what they meant or what type of job my mother was engaged, but they always said about mother what didn’t mean anything.
We had no idea we missed something called father, it was alright we felt, that way mother was free and we were free and we loved her all the more.
We thought it would be nice to know where the ants went, taking the soul of Dorsal with them. The path wasn’t all that straight, it had many twists and turns, a few de-tours and bit of wasteful climb, there ought to be some reasoning behind their actions. We followed the trail till the course finally reached a crevice between two large granite stones. I was not sure, but my brother tilted the boulders pushing them apart as if he was Samson. The soil under it was unsoiled and virgin, from its surface grew a pirouetting whiff of appeasing fragrance. The file of ants, now having got used to the shelter under the stone, quavered in the fresh lease of air. It was only for a while, the ants weighed heavy with the beefy loads they hauled. They entered a cubbyhole one by one with committed discipline, giving room for the other as in cultured societies; this made their work effortless and plight comfortable. A simple, adroit maneuvering, it was sufficient to take the things inside and build their store of groceries for a rainy day.
Suddenly we realized that the food they were carting was our own Dorsal. We grew angry and wanted to destroy the thread, devastate the entire entourage in revenge.
It wasn’t worth it, my brother said, Dorsal is dead anyway. Besides not all the ants were at it, some traversed empty handed rubbing fore-hand as if they were in deep, philosophical trance. We peered brining our faces closer, to check if there was a trace of wickedness in their behavior. We couldn’t find any.
The ants were so tiny, we discovered that individual ants did not have a mind of their own, but collectively the ants possessed wisdom large enough to rotate an object as big as Jupiter. We considered if we could take one of the ants with us and keep it in a match box. Feed and play.
Dorsal is dead and we needed someone else as pet. It wouldn’t be interesting, we decided; we knew a single ant wouldn’t make up for quarter Dorsal.
We felt sad that we did not give Dorsal the burial that we intended; we had abandoned him for our own amusement. But the ants were giving him one in their own inconspicuous manner. Dorsal certainly deserved a dignified funeral. We thought it would be nice to bury the remnants nevertheless. He started looking like a scare-crow by then, stuffed with dried paddy stalk. In Ooty there are no scare-crows, we saw scare-crows in the paddy fields when mother once took us once to the plains where rice was under cultivation. Dorsal looked like a tattered coat, his eyes shut and lifeless, meant to convey nothing, that was all that was left of him.
Not that we had seen a number of funerals then, remember we were children, but we knew and were shrewd to know that funerals were mere rituals, the rituals appeared to us vain religious exercises mired in stupidity, a maiming game which adults enacted and thought a world of.
Rituals meant nothing, we felt.
But as I near my own time now, death looks more real than life; death seems the only certain thing. Death looks real because it builds fear, fear that you can feel and experience. To overcome the fear of death people always speak about life after death. It is an expedient hope, hope which I don’t want to deny myself now.
We went about that sundown, looking for a place for Dorsal. We searched for tackles, there was a piece of drawn-out dry stick with a sharp, pointed tip. And a broken patch of hardboard which was damp but stiff. It smelled kakhi like the smell of kakhi associated with starch.
I started to dig; my brother went off in search of chrysanthemums to cover the grave with. After a few thwacks, my palms hurt. In the heart of heart I waited for the first sound of the siren, then for the sound of footsteps of mother. The innuendo of waiting is the innuendo of life. In the innuendo, the original conviction wore off.
It would rain soon, anyway the face of earth changes.
Saranyan BV is a writer from Mumbai. He walked into the realm of English Literature due an oversight, but now is smug about being there. He has many published poems and short fictions to his credit, India and abroad. He loves Raymond Carver’s short stories and believes Short stories as a genre would eventually replace poetry and novels as popular literature.