Jaishree was in the bathroom heaving mugs of scalding water on her body when the barking started. All the neighbourhood dogs chorused in sync, a great big cacophony of howls, barks and yaps to signal an intruder. Her hand stopped in the act of raising the tin mug, the water baptising her feet, and she absently watched her toes turn red. The power went out with a flicker of the weak bulb dangling from the wooden beams in the bathroom dousing her in darkness, as from outside she heard rushing feet and a heartbeat later, Girijakka, their neighbour’s excited voice, slightly breathless, “A madman in the fields, come quickly.”
“You stay where you are, Vidya, don’t come out,” she yelled to her daughter as she dressed, pulling the nightie blindly over her rapidly cooling body in the pitch dark, not bothering to wipe it, knowing beads of water dotted it like chicken pox sores, feeling them rub against the cotton, rendering it damp.
She pushed open the wooden latch on the bathroom door, peered out into the thick darkness, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Glow-worms were twinkling in the fields below. Someone was making his tortured way down the hill in the distance, the lonely flicker of a candle bobbing up and down among the glow-worms. And the madman stood somewhere in the darkness, keening, his words a map of pain.
Her wet hair trailed drops on her bare arms, raising goose-bumps.
She heard whispers morph into shouts above the barking of the dogs. The neighbours had collected outside to watch the show. She tiptoed to the courtyard to join the crowd, Vidya joining her despite her remonstrations to stay safe inside. Raised lanterns illuminated curious faces. The smell of kerosene and excitement coloured the air. From where he was standing, in the fields below her house, the madman must have seen first one lantern, then two, then a row of them dotting the hill, outdoing the glow-worms, as the neighbours gathered in droves.
“I am going to kill myself,” the madman yelled in slurring Kannada, “Right now. Right here.”
A loud roar. And then a collective hush, a fascinated sigh. A stage whisper, the crowd as one: “He has a knife.”
Oh Lord. A thrill of fear travelled up her spine. She could just make out the handle glinting in the darkness, silver to the glow-worms’ gold. The crowd silent, waiting.
“We need to call the police,” someone whispered.
“At this hour?” someone else countered. “They will all be at the arrack shop.”
“What about sub inspector Karanth? He lives just down the road.”
“Will he be home do you think?”
The dogs had stopped barking and seemed to be just as curious as the crowd. And then, a woman’s voice, high pitched, almost a scream, “Oh my God! He’s doing it.”
A faint trace of the sweet rusty scent of blood from the field below mixed with mud drifted up to Jaishree’s nostrils, the sour stench of arrack mingled with the scent of frying spices and a hint of burning as the women had left the food on the fire and forgotten about it in their haste to get to the root of the commotion.
Vidya turned away from her. “Where are you going?” Jaishree asked, hardly recognising her voice, laced as it was with panic.
“I can’t just stand here and watch him kill himself like the rest of you,” Vidya’s voice was sharp.
Her daughter sprinted home, returning within minutes with the money Jaishree had been saving in the safe under the broken bench where she hoped no burglar would think to look, and bribed Champi’s son to get sub inspector Karanth. Champi’s son – the fastest boy in the village, his speed honed from years of playing cricket and running away when his wayward ball nearly blinded people, smashed windows and scattered neatly arranged piles of harvested grain everywhere to the delight of the hens who embarked on a frenzied pecking – ran up the path in the thick darkness. Unerringly weaving through the backyards of houses to the road, he tried every shortcut imaginable, intent on claiming the hundred rupees that Vidya had promised him in addition to the 50 if he came back with the policeman, determined to rouse sub inspector Karanth from the depths of slumber if need be, no doubt picturing his mother’s face when he pressed the money into her always slightly moist hands, his bare feet flying, his white vest flashing once in the thick darkness and then gone.
Jaishree dug her nails into her palms, hopping from foot to foot as she waited for Champi’s son to come back. Her hair was still wet and hanging round her face in clumps, wet droplets streaming down her face.
Another roar from the crowd. “He’s fainted, dropped right there, in all that mud. Someone call a doctor quick.”
“He can’t have fainted, that soon, surely, such a big man,” someone else blustered.
A commotion. And then a deep voice querying, “What is going on here?”
“He’s here. Sub inspector Karanth’s here.”
The air smelt sweet, of ripe jackfruit and sweet relief.
“What is this scene you are making in front of God-fearing people’s houses at this hour of the night? Have you no shame?”
“I want to die.” The madman’s voice wavering. “I want to kill myself.”
“Do.” Sub inspector Karanth said coolly. A shocked whisper reverberated through the crowd. “We’ll all watch you. Go on,” Sub inspector Karanth’s voice was calm, laced with humour as though this was a normal conversation with a normal man on a normal day.
The crowd gasped.
There was a sudden flash, illuminating the madman’s scowl, the lines on his tanned, aging face, his long untidy hair, his white singlet, yellowing at the edges, his legs, knee-deep in mud in the middle of the freshly ploughed field. Jaishree rocked on her feet. She wanted to run home, huddle there safe within the shelter of her four walls, her daughter snug beside her. But she stood there shivering even though the evening was mild, her eyes were drawn to his left hand, to the cut on the inside of his upper arm where the skin was lighter, milk chocolate to the dark chocolate of the rest of his body, dripping blood, one scarlet bubble at a time in steady conical drips.
A low rumble of thunder growled through the mango, banyan, tamarind and guava tees.
“Come on man, stop making a scene, let these people get inside before we all get wet,” said sub inspector Karanth looking up at the sky.
He put an arm on the madman’s shoulder just as the heavens opened and the monsoons burst through the clouds, drenching everybody in seconds, drowning the flames of lanterns, steeping the crowd in darkness.
Afterwards, lying beside her daughter on the mattress, her husband snoring on the bench above, having returned from the arrack shop after the madman had been led away, which was just as well because there was no way he would have allowed Vidya to part with the money, listening to the crickets sing and the dogs complain as they settled down for the night, Jaishree found her daughter’s face in the darkness: all shadows and shining eyes. ‘You are so kind and righteous and brave, my girl,’ she said, reaching out to touch Vidya, stroke her hair.
Hari had not mentioned her by name. He had just threatened to kill himself, his eyes seeking hers in the gloom. And she had stood there doing nothing, the coward that she was, dread settling like a nest of dark clouds hounding the sky before a thunderstorm.
She had seen a picture of a pincushion in a magazine once, a fluffy mauve cushion with all these pins sticking out of it. It had looked wrong, like thorns pricking flesh, drawing blood. That is how she had felt as she heard him, crying out his pain in the fields, cutting himself, calling for her, as her daughter ran to his rescue, as he was led away.
Hari. The boy she had befriended over cold red rice tasting of cardboard while rain drummed on the tiles of the school, the boy she grew up with, who knew her inside out, the boy she loved and everyone else shunned.
They had had to hide their friendship. They had had to be cunning, to meet secretly – after hours in the empty school smelling of chalk and populated with ghostly echoes of children’s laughter; by the stream beside the woods where nobody went because it was infested with snakes. They had become adept at lying, at avoiding people. And one day, she had emerged from the stream screaming, frightened by a water-snake brushing past her legs, had walked into his waiting arms, and something had changed. He had kissed her and it was like nothing she had ever experienced. He had kissed her and she had forgotten everything her mother had told her, had melted into his arms.
Lying on the mattress beside her sleeping daughter, listening to her husband’s sputtering snores, the whining dogs, the lone owl calling from the recesses of the banyan tree, she thought of the convent, the tenderness of the nuns, how they had bathed her after the birth and plied her with food, how they had prayed for her and looked after her, asking for nothing in return.
Why hadn’t she thought of all this before she did what she did with that shudra, that untouchable, her mother had sobbed when she found out Jaishree was pregnant, hitting her head repeatedly with her hands. Why? How had they given birth to a girl of such loose morals? Jaishree had been dispatched to the convent immediately and there she had stayed for the rest of her pregnancy. When she came back with her baby girl, Hari was gone. She did not know what her parents had said to him, but he and his mother had quite simply disappeared.
And then he turned up out of the blue, just once. Many summers before this evening when he sang out his pain in the fields and his daughter, their daughter, was the only one with enough courage to help him.
She was in the kitchen, washing the lunch dishes, revelling in the feel of water splashing on her hands. Dhruv had eaten and left for the fields. Outside, the mongrel that had adopted them barked. A low, mournful howl. She shouted for him to shush but he kept on barking. She went to check, wiping her hands on her sari pallu, inadvertently stepping on the cat’s paw as it inched towards the fresh sardines that the fisherwoman had delivered that morning. The cat, who had almost reached the fish, shrank away yelping in fright and Jaishree saved the lunch in the process.
Clouds slung low, dense. It looked like rain. She stood on the veranda and peered. In the corner of the fields, hidden by coconut trees, he stood. She recognised him in the curve of his face, even though it was camouflaged by a beard. His eyes were hooded. They stared at her, the intensity of his gaze boring holes into her. He walked up to her, close. Too close. She could feel his breath, warm and smelling of onions on her face. “Come with me, Jaishree,” he said softly.
And she had thought of her baby, their baby, sleeping inside, of the man who had married her despite the baby, despite the disgrace, and said, “No. I can’t.”
He had clasped her hand, said softly, urgently, “I love you. Only you. And you love me too.”
The air was still. Swollen, heavy, waiting.
“I can’t,” she had said.
A crack like the whip Ganappa used on his buffaloes and sometimes on his wife, a roar and an angry flash splitting the muggy sky in two.
He had dropped her hand, walked away. Not looking back once.
She had watched a baby bird fall out of its nest once. The tree was hopelessly high and it fell on a rock, fluttered its wings weakly once. She had mouthed frantic prayers, willed its chest to rise. It lay there, beak partly open, eyes wide, unseeing, chest stubbornly still. She had watched the mother hop beside it, peck at it with its beak, trying to make it move. And she had felt an ache, thick, glutinous like tar seeping from a hole in the road, permeating every cell of her body. She felt that ache again then, as she watched him walk away, his tall body slumping, his shoulders hunched, defeated. The heavens had opened, with a flash and a roar. The curtain of rain so thick that she couldn’t see anything in front of her, which was just as well, as the world was swimming before her eyes.
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