by Nirupama Sudarsh
Narayanaswami lit the tip of the agarbatti lodged underneath a thickset Ramayana placed on a decaying wooden stand. A framed picture of Lord Ganpati gleamed from the aureate blaze of a tiny brass lamp, the only source of illumination, placed in front of it. An ashen mud pot of basmam and a glass bottle of camphor were the other objects on it. The room was sparsely furnished with an old black plastic cot with straw like base, also made of plastic, but fraying at the edges and a dusty wooden chair in a corner.
Images of his senile mother, daughter estranged when at twelve and the woman who once commanded his life, floated in the blackness of his mind as he prayed. It had been 20 long years since the separation. He still didn’t understand why she left him for another man. He had always thought of them as a picture perfect family. But when the drought scorched his crops, prosperity vanished and so did she with their daughter leaving him to live the grim shadow of his former glorious life. Their paths had never crossed each others’ since then. He chose not to walk into hers rather. He knew what came of her and their child. They led fine lives and that is all he had wished to know.
A hot bead of tear trickled down his wrinkled cheek. Quickly regaining his firmness of mind, he wound up his brief but profound prayer smearing the holy ash across his broad forehead.
It was a blustery and ominously cold night. Swami moved close to the window. He wrapped his fingers around the cold and uneven rods of iron and pressed his face against it.
“Heaven is unhinged today,” he thought to himself. He stared out into the darkness for some time before proceeding to undo a carefully wrapped parcel on the cot. Sitting on the cot, he drew the wooden chair to him and placed the banana leaf parcel on it. He was just about to unwrap it when he a heard a low sobbing from outside. He thought he was imagining it and brushed it away. But the sobs grew louder than before. Rising from the cot, he headed to the door of his shack and unlatched it.
The night was still insidious and uproariously grim. Torrents of rainwater washed down the tinned roofs that clattered and clucked as if demented. Swami, severely agitated by incendiary behaviour of nature, looked around. Rain water stabbed him in the eyes that his eyes disappeared to look not larger than two slits. Scanning the premises of his hutment, he barely noticed a black figure crouched in the scanty shelter decaying roof against the wall.
“Who is that?” His shout came across as nothing more than a hoarse cry in the fury of the night.
He crept closer to the lone and drenching figure. Peering down he saw a little boy of around 8 or 9 trembling all over. The low roof had done little to shield him from the inclement weather. Had it not been for the caterwauling softened by the din of the rain, Swami couldn’t have said he was crying as water washed down in rivulets from top to bottom.
“Come inside son. Come inside” he repeated.
Holding him by the shoulders, he guided the still weeping boy inside. The wind blew boisterously that it took Swami all his effort
to shut the door close. Now that the fury of the rain was behind them, the sounds issuing from the boy were no longer sobs. Swami took the towel hung over the chair and rubbed it hard against the boy’s wet hair trying to wipe him dry.Drawing a fresh white dhoti from his bag, he undid the child’s clothes and wrapped it around him.
“Calm down my child. Have you eaten anything?”
The boy gave him a forlorn look through his cries. Swami took that for a no and reached out for the parcel that lay unopened. The idlis had softened soaking in white chutney and podi. He broke one into tiny pieces and pushed it into the boy’s mouth. The boy was at first reluctant but then his hunger weakened his resolve to keep his mouth shut.
Swami was breaking the second idli when the boy asked guardedly “Did you eat?”
Swami looked deep into the boy’s fear ridden eyes for half a minute. He smiled, moved by the kid’s concern for a total stranger and did not say anything, instead offered him the last morsel of the first idli.
“I don’t want more.”
“Alright, if you say so. You sit here quietly like a good boy while I come back in a few minutes.”
Swami disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door behind him.
The boy still looked sombre but placated. He looked around the tiny room that gave the illusion of being spacious from the lack of objects in it. When everything in there had exhausted his curiosity he stared hard at the zinc red floor and was lost in deep thought. Tears once again collected in the wells of his eyes. Just then the bathroom door swung open and Swami walked out in dry clothes. He knelt down next to the boy.
“Now tell me what your name is? How did you end up here?”
“Manu,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
“Did you get lost? Where do you live?”
“I was playing at Game Arcade in the mall. Mummy saw a friend outside and left to talk to her giving me instructions to stay there. But I didn’t listen to her and moved out because I wanted to explore the rest of the place all by myself. When I returned she wasn’t there. I didn’t know what to do. I searched all over the mall but she wasn’t anywhere. Then I saw you locking your cabin and going away. So I followed you.”
“Hasn’t your mother told you that good boys and girls don’t follow strangers?”
“You are not a stranger. I’ve seen you in the album that mummy hides in her closet”
“What is your mother’s name child?”
“Sujatha. But she likes to be called Suji though grandma will not have any of it. She says someone very special used to call her by that name when she was a kid.”
“Did you ask her who the person in the picture was?”
“No I didn’t. I didn’t want her to punish me for being a naughty boy fishing through her secret belongings. But I have seen her sitting up with the album and sobbing all day long sometimes.”
“It’s getting late. I will take you back home the first thing tomorrow. But now I shall put you to sleep.”
When he was asleep, Swami clasped his grandchild and looked out into the starry sky.