Home for Dashain
May 27, 2011-
Cross-legged, bare-chested save for the holy thread, a clean white dhoti wrapped around the waist, he followed the priest’s instructions scrupulously. In the dim air, redolent of fresh wet earth, dung and incense, he offered flowers to the Bhagawati Durga, a fist-sized brass idol astride a lion, all but smothered by garlands, grain and grass. The priest leaned over and trickled water into his right palm, and he brought it to his lips before sprinkling it over his head three times. The fourth palm of water he poured onto the floor, before following the priest in soothing, singsong Sanskrit incantations.
The priest now lighted an oil lamp and handed it to the supplicant. He traced a slow circle in the air with it as the priest chanted, ringing a small brass bell. The light from the lamp cast shadows across the room and bathed the men’s faces, warm and calm.
‘Ey, Ramesh dai …’
‘What?’ The priest continued to ring the bell, but Ramesh turned slightly to the silhouette framed in the rectangle of white light behind him. ‘What happened, Kanchha?’ The boy didn’t move, but Ramesh could feel him staring at him. The ringing stopped. A few seconds passed. A lamp scraped across the earthen floor. Ramesh clicked his tongue in irritation and gestured to the priest to continue. But the boy spoke again. ‘Ramesh dai, there are three people here to see you. They say they want to talk to you.’
Those damn villagers, he thought. Ever since he’d been back they’d been pestering him with all sorts of things. Letters and bottles of ghee to take back to Kathmandu. Jobs for their sons. Husbands for their daughters. Who did they think he was? Nobody had cared about him before he left for the city. Before he became a policeman.
‘Who is it? Huh?’
‘Khai, I don’t know. They’re from across the river, I think. There are three men.’
‘I’ll finish this puja and come out, tell them. But it will take a while, they can go talk with Father if they want, he must be in the fields. No peace to do puja when I finally come home for Dashain!’
‘Ho bhaneko.’ The priest looked up from his muddle and frowned. ‘Finally, Ramesh has come back this year for Dashain. This puja is very important.’ He nodded officiously, selected a flower from the pile next to him and placed it firmly in Ramesh’s outstretched palm.
The boy disappeared from the door. The priest started to chant verses rapidly in a low tone.
The puja was certainly important. Ramesh hadn’t been home for almost three. But then these were busy times. The Maoist troubles had dispatched him all over the west, everywhere but his own corner of terraced green, red dust and blue skies.
Hard times, too. All that killing and it still wasn’t over. The laughing faces of his friends Bhim and Prabhakar shimmered briefly before his eyes, to be replaced by the last he’d seen of them, dusty, blackened death masks that bore no resemblance to the living people he’d known and loved. When he thought of his friends, he felt the Maoists deserved everything they got, everything. He would like to shut it all out, but how could he? Only time would do that.
The puja would help too, in so many ways. It was Father’s idea, and was just the thing. It would cleanse his soul, and prepare him to move on to what Mother had not lived to see. Marriage. Already he felt lighter, the trusses around him loosening; as he bowed his head it was as if he were dipping into a soothing ether of devotion.
It was the boy again. This time he stepped in and came right up to Ramesh. By the light of the oil lamp, Kanchha’s face was a pallid, sickly yellow.
‘Ramesh dai, they say you have to come out-now.’ The ensuing silence extended into the room, a clammy damp hemming them in. The boy’s fear infected the two men, who stared back at him wordlessly, mouths agape. Then Ramesh spoke in a whisper. ‘Who are they, what do they say they want?’ Kanchha said nothing, his eyes glinting in the dark. Anxiety jabbed at Ramesh’s heart. He looked at the priest and saw it reflected in the old man’s eyes. He had to control himself. He was a policeman after all. Perhaps someone just wanted his help. Just like everyone else. Could it really be … them?
He forced himself to stand up and was slightly disgusted to find his legs were trembling. The priest and the boy were watching him. He cleared his throat. ‘I’ll see and come back. They want a donation, maybe.’ He laughed weakly, his voice catching in his throat, and peered into the inner room. His suitcase was by the bed, the knife in its case glinting dully next to it. His khukuri.
The room went dark as the light from the door was blotted out. ‘Ramesh Khatiwada!’ A harsh voice boomed into the room.
Ramesh swivelled and faced the door. ‘Who are you?’ His voice was unsteady. The man stepped in. He was followed by a second man, and then a third. Ramesh backed away as they advanced, and the priest gasped as he stumbled over the offerings and then the goddess herself. For a moment it seemed the intruders hesitated and Ramesh tried to slip along the wall to the other room. But then they were upon him. Before he knew it, he was being dragged out of his house, too frightened to even struggle. He could hear shouts, Kanchha was crying, then he was blinded by the sunshine on his face. He lost his balance and was pushed to the ground, landing hard in the dust with barely enough time to fling his arms out in front of him.
An excerpt from Home for Dashain, part of Rabi Thapa’s debut compilation of short stories, Nothing to Declare.
The book is published by Penguin India and is available at major bookstores.
Published: 28-05-2011 09:10