Saturday, September 13, 2014

For blurbs:

…on the beautiful slopes of Kalimpong - frozen smoke writing history with a bright ink
The journey that had begun as a morning walk, had transformed into a dark peripatetic madness.

One Morning, April 1984

When seven-year-old Phurchu woke up, he was surprised to find his father watching over him, gravely.
Phurchu had a bed that creaked whenever he moved, reminding him of his grandfather who had this irritating habit of grinding his teeth, whatever were left, for no reason. But his father had taken care not to rock the bed when he sat on it. From his bed, Phurchu could see his mother in the kitchen, sitting on a mura, crying.
He wondered why…
She would normally have been cooking at this time. Especially today! It was his birthday!
Phurchu had not been seeing much of his father. This time as well, his father had been away for three days and three nights. But he had learnt to take his father’s unannounced disappearances as routine, quite like the frequent closure of his school, sometimes for weeks on end, even when there were no festivals around. Much like the processions on the roads, menacing CRPF personnel parading everywhere, frequent retorts of gunfire bursts (which, to Phurchu, did not at all resemble the sound gathered from the movies) and between them, the silences louder than the exploding bombs, the burning of houses that he could see from his window on odd mornings on the beautiful slopes of Kalimpong - frozen smoke writing history with a bright ink. All of these had played so often that they had become normal occurrences for the seven-year-old.
For Phurchu, the best part of course was not having to go to school. He was having a ball.
He distinctly remembered his father’s arrival last night. His sleep was broken due to the banging on the door which initially he thought to be another spate of exploding bombs, but when he heard his mother’s admonishing tones, he knew who had arrived. He had tried to get up, but sleep benumbed his limbs and the 5-kilo quilt pinned him down like an opportunistic wrestler. He heard his mother and father talk in urgent, heated whispers. After sometime his mother had started crying. That had somehow lulled him to sleep.
And now…
“Get up Phurchu. We have to take a walk.”
His father forced a smile that made him look insane.
“Mmm…!” Phurchu showed no enthusiasm on this unusual proposal.
He pulled the quilt over his face and pretended to still be asleep.
“Come on, son. A He-Man never feels lazy to go for a walk. Aren’t you a He-Man?” Father coaxed him and gently pulled the quilt off his son’s face.
His voice carried the trace of a blocked nose.
“I feel too cold to go, Apa. We’ll go after the sun comes out, okay? After breakfast?” Phurchu made a last ditch attempt to procrastinate.
“No, no. Your Apa does not have that much time. A good boy always obeys his elders.”
He held his son’s hands and pulled him up. Phurchu rubbed his eyes and yawned.
“Are you going again? Where are you going?” Phurchu tried to make his father guilty by exaggerating his disappointment.
“You’ll know soon enough,” he replied cryptically and pushing the small shoes near the bed with his foot, said, “Just put on your sweater and shoes. You can wash your face later. Come on, hurry up. I don’t have all day.”
A reluctant pair of feet disappeared into the canvas shoes while the older man found a sweater for his son. He made Phurchu put his head through the neck of the sweater and helped him slip his arms in the sleeves. Once the son was ready, his father examined his handiwork with satisfaction and said, “We’re all set. Let’s move.”
As they proceeded towards the door, Phurchu stole a glance at his mother; she had not spoken all this while and was looking blankly over an empty pot, eyes swollen. A subtle stiffening in Phurchu’s hand around his finger made his father turn. He looked at his wife resignedly for a minute and said, “You hear, there? All the money is in the left drawer. I’ve left the keys on the table. By the way, don’t forget to burn the papers in the other drawer, all of them. Phurchu and I are just going to have a chat while we walk.”
She began to sob even more as the two walked out of the house, on to the road.
The road stretched its long arms both ways and seemed to be enjoying the scratching brooms of the municipality sweepers. A look at his watch told him that it was only five, but the morning was bright enough even without the sun.
Once, a bright artist from Dr. Graham’s Homes school had painted an imaginary aerial view of Kalimpong. The work was considered a masterpiece and as though to acknowledge its due worth, it was displayed in all the schools of Kalimpong. This painting, a sizeable 24”x30”, depicted the town with the Deolo hill on the north, Durpin in the South and the two rivers Relli on the east and to the west, Tista.
Phurchu had also seen the painting. The overhead picture of his own town was amusing for him. When his father had remarked on how the town had grown, Phurchu had silently disagreed; he thought, looking at the picture, it seemed that instead of the town growing in the middle of the wilderness it was the wilderness that was swallowing up the town. And in some ways he was quite right. For such was the township of Kalimpong that the moment one left the road and took one of the side roads, the scene changed dramatically like in some revolving theatre and one could end up in a moment on some dusty path leading down to the village.
It was one such path that the father and son took, the damp clay sticking adamantly to their shoes. The path danced abundantly and suddenly hid behind a large jackfruit tree. For a moment Phurchu forgot his morning lethargy, curious to find out how the path would unfold.
They walked without a word. Among the shallow terraces they saw goats fornicating in front of a hut. Phurchu was well aware of the act and just to overcome the embarrassment he asked his father, “Where were you for the last three days?”
“I was working,” he said tersely and seemed determined not to elaborate.
Phurchu sensed it and did not pursue the issue. He longed for his bed.
“Why did we have to come out so early!” he grumbled.
“Because you have to learn a lot of things.”
The father was fumbling for something in his trousers pocket.
The frown wrote lines of confusion on his forehead.
“Things... There are many things you don’t know. And you have to learn fast.”
“Why?” Phurchu was perplexed. It was so easy to get back home – just turn and run.
“Because you don’t have the time. I don’t have the time myself, you know!”
“What do I have to learn exactly?” Phurchu had a feeling he was stirring a hornet’s nest.
“Tell me, what would you like to be when you grow up?”
The father opened his conversation as though playing a riddle.
Phurchu thought for a while and said, “I’d like to be like Philip uncle.”
“A bus conductor?” The amazement of it made the father halt and stare at his son. But his gaze eased and a wry smile spread on his lips. Then he continued, “So you want to be a bus conductor. Okay!  Fine… You can make a killing as a bus conductor as well. After all it’s money that matters. Who cares whether you are a conductor or a contractor.”
He fell silent for a while. Phurchu was thinking about the metal pistol Philip uncle’s son Sanu had, that did not break even when used as a walnut cracker.
“But as a conductor, or anytime when you’re in a moving vehicle, you have to keep one thing in mind,” Phurchu’s father was saying, “You should never stick out your tongue and you should never pick your nose.”
“Apa, I want to pee.” Phurchu said to his father.
When they came to a thick bamboo grove that opened up like an umbrella at the canopy, the father gently released Phurchu’s finger. The boy, who still carried sleep in his eyes, walked behind a tree, slipped down his pajamas and peed. Suddenly, his father came running to him, shouting, “Stop Phurchu! You’re pissing on your own shoes.”
Phurchu turned to look at his father, unsure of how he was supposed to do what his father wanted.
“Always remember, son, before you take a leak peel it like this…,” he said actually pulling down his son’s foreskin, and continued, “Otherwise you’ll end up ruining your clothes. Understand?”
The boy nodded, but he could not pee anymore. After waiting for some time they continued.
“Why shouldn’t we pick our noses or stick our tongues out in a bus, father?”
“Because roads are bad; they are full of bumps and puddles and holes. When the buses jerk and jolt you could end up biting your own tongue off or your finger might get shoved further up your nose. That’s why you should not stick your tongue out or pick your nose in a bus, or in any vehicle for that matter. Can you remember that?”
Not waiting for his son’s reply, he walked up to a poinsettia bush and started taking a leak himself. Phurchu looked longingly towards the town, imagining a hot plate of fried rice in front of him.
“Actually, you should write all this down. It will stand you in good stead in the future,” his father said, zipping his fly.
“Can we go back now, Apa? I’m hungry.” Phurchu said, almost begging.
His father pretended to look at him in mock dismay. He said nothing but gestured that they should carry on.
Just then the bell at the MacFarlane Church began to ring. As if breaking a trance, it made the whole atmosphere come alive for Phurchu’s father. He became conscious of it and furtively scanned his surroundings.
“Look! It’s just 5:30. Nobody eats this early in the morning. This is time for morning walks. It’s good for health. Remember, even though you’ll hear many people say this, there’s nothing, nothing at all, more valuable than health. This walk will give you a good appetite and better digestion. You’ll see.”
It looked like he wanted to elaborate further on the theme of health, but he abandoned the idea. Instead, he gently put his hand on Phurchu’s shoulder, subtly urging him to move on.
The countryside they were in was actually a horticulture farm. It was to the credit of the people who worked there that the cabbage and radish fields looked healthy and thriving, but the townspeople believed that this was primarily because of the sewage of the entire town which flowed down here. That, of course, did not stop the farm from selling their products in town and the people bought them anyway.
Phurchu held his tiny nose and complained to his father, who seemed impervious to the smell, “Apa, let’s go back. It’s too dirty here.”
“Don’t forget that you and I have also contributed to this smell. Why don’t you try to single out the smell of your own shit! Can you do that?” And he laughed.
“Let’s go back. I’ll be sick,” said the boy. He thought that the grossness of the joke was even more oppressive than the stench. He could not believe that his father could be so indifferent to the suffocating odour.
“Okay. Walk faster,” Phurchu’s father said. “We’ll soon be away from this.”
“Haven’t we already come away too far?” Phurchu asked.
“Yes, we might have. Just watch the path.” And he briskly moved ahead, his son following.
He kept quiet for another minute, and then repeated, “Just mind the path, okay? You might have to return alone.”
“Why, Apa? I can’t go back alone. You have to come back with me,” Phurchu said, starting to cry.
“Don’t start crying now. I was just joking. But do you expect me to be around you forever?” He said with mild impatience. But immediately, realizing the fact that such a question is not exactly reassuring for a kid of seven, he tried to distract his son by rubbing his sole on the grass pretending to have stepped on some shit.
Phurchu’s father looked up towards town which really appeared incredibly far away. The path concealed itself among the bushes like a vengeful snake skulking in the grass waiting to strike. He looked down towards the Relli river and the wilderness that unfurled beyond it in the morning light. A tug at his sleeve made him look quickly at his son and then at the wilderness again, his eyes just a pair of unreflecting, dry niches in the face. Just then, a careless crack of a pipe-gun rang out somewhere below. As if on cue, Phurchu’s father shuffled his feet and seemed to be preparing for something. Nearby a nestling dropped from a tree. Its agonized chattering went unnoticed, no bird came down to take it back to the nest.
“Son, I’m running out of time. I think I’ll have to shorten the purpose of this little jaunt. But even as we do so, I must tell you one thing. That is…” he stopped, as if he was disturbed by the quiet of the morning.
He was holding his son’s hand. He squeezed it so hard that his son squirmed. He let go of Phurchu’s hand, but there was no remorse in his face. All of a sudden his eyes assumed the blankness of a condemned man. The transformation robbed Phurchu of words.
After a while, Phurchu’s father resumed, “That is, you don’t have to always take sides in this world. People always fight for different reasons. Some out of conviction, some without. Do you follow me?”
Some months ago his mother had taken Phurchu to the local Sericulture farm where there was a huge mulberry tree. The gardener there grew pally with his mother and so he shook the tree for Phurchu. The fruits showered thickly to the ground but Phurchu standing under it, palms wide open, could not catch a single fruit. His father’s words reminded him of that day. But he could pick the fruits from the ground then, though.
When he saw no change in Phurchu’s face, his father decided to continue. Phurchu had not seen his father this grave, ever.
“You remember our milkman before the present one? Innocent, plain and harmless? You know what happened to him? He is dead. Shot mercilessly and blindly by the CRPF for nothing; hence, the new milkman. You remember the rooster thief whom Uncle Philip and others caught and was beaten black and blue? Well, the times have changed for him. He is one of the most powerful men now. You might’ve noticed things are not as calm as they used to be two or three years ago. The gunfire, bomb blasts, people running, people chasing – something is going on. You’ll not understand what. But you’ll be a part of it all the same, eventually.”
Phurchu seemed to listen carefully. He did not know what to say. By this time, he had found a roasted pea in his pocket which he promptly popped in his mouth. His father paused only to take a deep breath.
He resumed: “Whatever. Listen carefully. When you are able to understand what is going on now and if ever you find yourself in such times when you grow up, I’ll give you a few hints to remember. To begin with, try your utmost not to take sides. I can warn you that it’s the hardest thing to do, because it might leave you lonely sometimes. Powerful people will proclaim – ‘you are either with us or with the enemy,’ – and torment you.”
Phurchu was totally exhausted by now, physically and mentally. He was too tired to follow his father’s ranting. They were too grown up for him anyway. In fact, he rather suspected that his father was not talking to him at all. He was talking to himself; why else would he be so inscrutable. Phurchu, was really horrified at this thought. His eyes were filled with tears as he looked up to his father, who was unmoved by his son on the verge of tears. He seemed to carry the disquiet of the universe on his face. His eyes seemed dead, the mouth, however, spoke, “But if you do end up taking sides, then know how to fulfill it. For instance, if you side with the people fighting against the administration, then your commitment should be undivided. You are in it for better or for worse anyway.”

The two had come a rather long distance and the town was no longer even visible. Here, the bamboo grove was denser, the path muddier. All the cottages were thatched, attached to the ubiquitous cow-sheds that reeked of dung. The stray people around looked dirty and scared. Phurchu, his eyes moist by now, mustered all his courage and in a voice that sounded like the un-oiled door of a metal almirah, begged his father, “Apa, I’m scared. Let’s go back home. Please!”
“Let me finish the lesson first. I’m just about finished. Okay?”
And then, after carefully maneuvering over a log bridge across a small stream, and helping his son safely across, he said, “But woe betide if your loyalties get divided because of your scruples and you try to balance your conscience by going over to the administration to give them the names of those who ambushed the police jeep in August last year. Because that is treachery. And you will, and should, be punished for it.”
Phurchu’s father had to stop at that point because just then, out of nowhere, a young boy in his twenties came running down and glancing at them for the briefest of a second, overtook them. His camouflaged trousers were tucked into his boots. A black handkerchief tied round his head, a homemade gun slung across his back.
As he went bounding down, he jumped over the stream that Phurchu and his father had just crossed. Perhaps he misjudged his leap, for he very nearly fell on his back into the rocky stream; but he balanced himself somehow and threw himself face first into a thick lantana bush. Before he vanished, he had to struggle quite fiercely to disentangle himself from the maze of branches.
For a moment, Phurchu was completely distracted from his own surreal predicament, rapt in that fleeting cameo.
The two stood still for God knows an eternity. When Phurchu looked up at his father, he saw horror in his eyes.
“Apa…!” Phurchu nudged feebly.
The older man suddenly jerked into his senses. He disengaged his finger from his son’s grip and wiped his hand which had gone damp with sweat.
“Come son. Let’s move along.”
And they resumed their walk. After a while, Phurchu’s father began again.
“Now, where was I? Oh, yes. You will and should be punished for it.” And he put his hand on his son’s shoulder and gently pulled him closer, so that their bodies touched as they moved forward.
“But fortunately, there will be more than one group fighting for the same cause. It is always like that, my son. People do like to do things in their own particular way. All would like to be the ones who calls the shots,” Phurchu’s father said, or rather whispered.
It was probably because of the atmosphere around the place. It was too quiet, and perhaps he did not want his voice to carry. And Phurchu was in that state of half sleep and half dread, and the calm seemed to deafen him and noise seemed to lull.
The words of wisdom were coming faster and faster, as if Phurchu’s father had made a tryst with time.
He continued, “Can you remember all these things? Look son, these are really very important things for you. For your benefit, let me repeat: if you have taken a side which is fighting for a very important cause against the Administration, you should never betray your people and you should never, either for your conscience or your personal benefit, go over to the other side. For when your betrayal surfaces, you’ll be on the run. On the run because the group you used to side with, has sworn to spill your blood and the Administration, after getting a taste of your flair for treachery, will do everything to suck you dry. Phurchu, there is no choice for you but to remember all this.”

By now the sun had started streaking through the mesh of leaves, and now and then hit the trickling water flowing unevenly along the stream. It was getting a bit warm.
Oblivious of all this, Phurchu’s father looked carefully down at the rugged path as far as his eyes could see. Suddenly, he halted and looked at his son whose innocent face told a tale of exhaustion and fear. Phurchu was beyond repeating his plea to return home. All tenderness in his father’s face was buried in layers of unknown agony, remorse and despair. The man took a deep breath as if to conclude a story, and resumed, “So, as I told you there will be more than one group fighting for the same cause. And more often than not, remember, they will be fighting with each other. Or why should they not belong to the same group and fight with the Administration more strongly?”
With that rhetorical question he began his journey again, the end of which the son was totally unaware of, and perhaps, even the father as well. The journey that had begun as a morning walk, had transformed into a dark peripatetic madness.
“But son,” he started, “The risk of an inter-group feud is also an advantage, and you have to use it. Or will you have any other choices? None. Hence, you will be forced to seek asylum with another group. You’ll either be out of perils or you’ll be sacrificed in the name of the very cause they are agitating for. It’s fifty-fifty. That is a gamble you have to take.”
They had come quite far from the town. Halfway between the Relli river and home, the trees were thicker now. Phurchu, because his legs had already walked further than they could, had to be supported by his father even over small jutting stones and gaps in the path. His protests were long drowned by his father’s unsolicited soliloquy and so, taking it as one of those unhappy days that he often experienced in school, he accepted his lousy luck.
All right, he bitterly reconciled, this day I not only have to get out of bed in an ungodly hour, but also delay my breakfast, walk around half the world to this wilderness, listen to all these pearls of wisdom I could do without, and spend the worst birthday morning ever. I’m sure it’ll end soon. It has to.
Just then three boys appeared from the shadows of the trees.
They were in their late teens or thereabouts. Any innocence concomitant to their age had been erased by the soot smeared across their faces. They had an ape-like nimbleness despite being heavily encumbered by the weapons they carried. They looked like veterans of a deadly game.
Phurchu felt a strange limpness in his father’s fingers and his hand was released involuntarily. His father’s face froze.
The father asked, “You do remember the way back home, as I told you. Do you?”
He wanted to say no, but nothing came out of Phurchu’s mouth. He was still trying to figure out what was wrong.
“Very well, then. Time has come for you to find your way to town. You can do it, can’t you? Go now, quick!” And he detached himself from his son and started walking down towards the boys.
“Hello bhaiharu! Came looking for me? I was coming anyway. Did Ongkal get my message?”
Phurchu heard his father approach those boys in amicable tones. His own feet were, like the bamboos around him, fixed to the ground.
“Don’t call us brothers.”
Menace rang in the newcomers’ voice. “You don’t know the meaning of the word.”
And they surrounded him.

Phurchu’s father turned to his son once again and shouted, “Still there? I told you to go back, didn’t I? Now hurry back. I’ve to go to Ongkal on important business. Now go back, hurry!”
Phurchu, who felt he was in some kind of a nightmare, mustered all his strength and will and shouted back, tearfully, “No Apa, I can’t go back alone. Please let’s go back together. I’m scared.”
But by then the boys had already dragged his father long way down, cursing, shoving, kicking and pushing.
Phurchu began to cry. Even long after his father vanished from sight, Phurchu kept calling and crying.
When his father did not reappear even after a long time, and Phurchu had drained all his tears and gone hoarse from crying, he was suddenly overcome by an irresistible urge to go back to sleep. But he fought it. He resolved to wait for his father.
He sat on the dusty path, mouse-like and sobbing, “Apa… Please come back…”
It was mournfully quiet all around.
[This short story was first published in the Sunday edition of NOW! over three issues from 19 April 2009 to 03 May 2009]

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