Hari Prakash Sharma
It was to be a two-minute stop.
Cold wing engulfed him as he opened the door. Pulling the collar up to his ears, he hurriedly got off the train, dragging the luggage behind him.
A long whistle, and the train moved. Quietly, he watched the cars creep by. And then there he was. All alone. Dark, all over. No. There, on that side, was some light. The railway office, maybe. A small kerosene lamp resting on a crooked pole, glimmering. A human figure quickly moved in and out of the small patch of light. Again, everything still and sark.
Perhaps the letter didn’t arrive after all, he thought. But he had mailed it a week ago, “Express,” too. Did he get off at the wrong station? He couldn’t possibly see the signs. All he knew was to take the third station from Unnao. Perhaps he did not count them right. He looked at shining dial of his watch. Four o’clock. What to do? He couldn’t stand there indefinitely, nor could he leave his luggage there. Lifting his suitcase and the hold-all, he began to move toward the lamp.
Someone was coming. A hand lamp swinging back and forth in rhythm. Nothing else could be seen. Gradually, the light came closer and finally focused on his face.
“Who’s that? Raji?”
“Yes, Babuji,” he said. Dropping the two bags, he moved forward and bent down to touch his father’s feet.
“Be blessed, my son,” Babuji pulled him up. A close and long embrace.
A soft mumble, “I am glad you came.”
“You do have luggage, don’t you?” Babuji asked in a quickly changed tone. “Leave it, leave it here, it will come,” and then in a voice full of exhilaration and command shouted toward the office, “O Shambhu! Come here. Quick. Take these bags home.”
A man came running and picked up two pieces.
“I was wondering if you got my letter,” Rajiv said as they walked toward the office.
“Oh yes, the letter came alright. I got it four days ago.… Did you have any trouble changing at Kanpur? I was thinking to send a man there.…”
A small one-room office with an even smaller verandah in the front.
Out there along the wall, were perhaps banana trees. One couldn’t be sure in the dim light.
A black dog was stretched out on the weighing machine on the verandah.
Rajiv followed his father into the office. It was bright. A kerosene lamp with a clean, oval-shaped chimney sat on a large table. Piles of thick, sandy brown paper on the table, too. A wooden inkstand, completely blackened and smeared with ink. On one side of the room was the booking window. A big almirah full of tickets standing nearby, with a big padlock on a hasp. In still another corner was the telegraph machine continuously pouring out its usual sound: gat-gar-gar-gat…
Rajiv took this in at a glance. The same familiar scene. He had seen this ever since he was old enough to see things. At several stations, one after another, but the same thing over and over again.…
“Let me send the departure message,” Babuji said, and he went over to the telegraph machine.
The middle finger of his right hand moved rapidly, sending the message. Standing by the table, Rajiv looked at Babuji: a blanket covering him from the head down to his knees, a tahmad hanging down to the ankles, woollen socks, and toeless sandals. It seemed that Babuji had become weaker in these few months. These odd night hours in the winter, at his age.
He sat down on the wooden chair by the table.
Babuji noticed it. “Sleepy?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer he called out loud, “Shambhu!”
“He has gone with the bags,” Rajiv reminded him.
Gar-gat-gar-gat gat-gar-gar-gar-gat gar-gar-gat-gat
The same language of three sounds. Years ago, when he was still in high school, how much effort he had put into it. Babuji kept pressuring him. If only picked up a bit, Babuji would say, he could get a job on the railway soon after matriculation. But…
The message had been sent. “I doubt if got any sleep on the train,” Babuji said, as he sat on his chair across the table.
“No. Hardly any. Had to change at Kanpur around midnight.”
Babuji put on his glasses and began to make entries in the register in front of him.
Darkness stood firm outside. Frosty, biting cold. Rajiv couldn’t take his hands out of his coat pockets. His fingers touched the pack of cigarettes in his right pocket. He got this sudden urge to smoke. But, no, not in front of Babuji.…
“How are things in Delhi? How are Pappu and Tunni?”
“Fine. Everyone is fine.”
He remembered that just a few moments ago there was something he had wanted to ask Babuji. He couldn’t. And he began to wonder why he didn’t. Should he ask now?… He couldn’t help smiling to himself. How strange it was. It wasn’t a big thing he wanted to ask. Did he always work at nights these days, that’s all. A sort of formality. Even then he kept wondering whether to ask or not.… It had always been like this. Whenever he was alone with Babuji he couldn’t find things to talk about. If something did come to his mind he would wonder whether to say it or not. How to say it, in what tone of voice? By that time Babuji himself would say something, or some other interruption would occur and his own thought would get lost in his mind. Not that it was his nature. Only in the company of Babuji.…
“Why didn’t you bring Munni along?”
“I asked her. She said it would disturb her studies. The finals are in April.”
“What disturbance? In a few days? Could have come and met with us.”
Rajiv did not answer. He noticed wrinkles on Babuji’s forehead. His face looked strangely serious. Whenever something he didn’t like occurred, his face always took on some such expression. Rajiv had seen this sice his childhood. He knew Babuji did not like their sending Munni through school. She was past sixteen already. They should worry about her marriage instead. What good would all this schooling do?… Yes, now is the time to ask.…
“Do you work night shifts these days?”
The forehead retuned to normal. “Yes.”
“Must be very hard on you. In such cold weather.…”
“No, it isn’t.” And suddenly his expression changed again — as if he did not like Rajiv downplaying his difficulties.
“It is just a matter of passing time. Somehow.…”
Rajiv looked at his father’s face. Pain all over. The eyes were still fixed on the register below, but clearly his mind was somewhere else.
A small thing, but a big pang hit Rajiv. The whole context came alive, filling him with guilt and shame. Then, suddenly, he felt an intense tenderness and compassion for his father. Wasn’t there something he could do to wash off that sadness, that pain…? He wished he could comfort his father — as one does a child, tenderly, affectionately, assuringly.…
Footsteps outside. It was Shambhu.
“You back? Good. Take Raji home, will you?” A sense of relief in Babuji’s voice. “Go home, son, and sleep. You must be tired.… Don’t bother unpacking your hold-all. My bedding might still be spread out.”
“Yes.” Rajiv came out of the room.
“Ay Shambhu, don’t forget to take lamp with you. It is dark.”
The air outside was cold and refreshing. Rajiv lit a cigarette as he stepped off the verandah. It was alright to smoke in front of mother.
Thick bushes on both sides of the narrow footpath. Rajiv watched each step behind Shambhu’s, yet his feet kept tangling with something.
That, perhaps, was the house out there. A lighted door, framing a tall silhouetted figure. Was it Ma?… Of course, who else.…
“You came alone, didn’t you? I have been telling your father no one else would come.” Mother’s voice reached him while he was still some distance away.
“Ram-Ram Amma,” Rajiv said, coming close and bending down to touch her feet.
“Have a long life my son.” She stroked his head. A mellow, almost moist voice.
“I have been up all night. Looking at the clock again and again. The train has come late, too.”
The train was not late, but this was mother’s habit. She always thought the train was late when someone was to come.
A square like room. High ceiling. Walls white and bare, except for the few clothes hanging on nails in a corner. What had happened to all those pictures — family pictures, pictures of various gods and goddesses, embroidered velvets, all framed in glass? Rajiv recalled the childhood days when, with great excitement, they would put them up every time Babuji was transferred to a new station. A solid line of framed pictures binding all the four walls. Must be lying in some trunk. Who would put them up?
A lantern hung on a nail in the middle of an open door that led into another room.
“It is a beautiful house. Three rooms like this. Kitchen, bathroom too. And a large courtyard…,” Amma was saying with childlike excitement.
Babuji’s bed was spread on a cot in a corner. Mussed up, a rumpled quilt on top. The wooden frame squeaked as Rajiv sat on the cot to undo his shoes. Amma sat in front of him on a little round cane chair, asking questions about everyone in Delhi.
He was really sleepy now. Had been sitting up all night on the train. Too much trouble getting the pajamas out now, and he slipped under the quilt in his underwear. Ah, how nice. What a delight, stretching out the legs.
Amma noticed she wasn’t getting full answers. She started picking up Rajiv’s clothes from the chair and hanging them on the nails.
“It is nice that you came, Raji. Have to have something to show the world. People do gossip, you know. Four grown-up sons. Not one showed up in six months. You can’t stop people from talking.”
The air became heavy all of a sudden. Why is Ma saying all this now? He was about to fall asleep, too.
“There isn’t any hanger around. Brought only one from Delhi. That is used up with your father’s coat and pants. What shall I do with your pants?”
“Just hang them up on the nails,” Rajiv felt relieved.
But Amma continued: “He hardly talks with anyone these days. Making the time somehow. Who is to blame? Who is there to be angry at? Suffering within. His body isn’t half what it was. One’s own sons have become strangers. What hopes he had!”
This is so unpleasant. Not now. Rajiv wished he could fall asleep.
“Could you move the lantern, Amma? The light is too bright.”
Amma took a long breath. Lowering the wick, she put the lantern down on the floor. “Go to sleep, son.” And she walked into the other room.
Rajiv does not want to remember unpleasant things. Is it necessary to keep thinking of the past?
It is a beautiful morning. The sun is out and bright. The morning fog is broken. Miles and miles of clear landscape. Clean, brisk, invigorating air. Rajiv hasn’t seen such a clear, beautiful morning in a long, long time. Everything in its pure, natural form. Pure sunshine. Unadulterated air. No, the air is not unadulterated. It carries with it the dampness of the morning dew. It carries with it the smells from that vast landscape of fields — out there, beyond the railway tracks — scattered on which are the numerous patches of mango groves. The smells of ripe sugarcane, of mustard flowers, of pea pods, of ears not yet filled with wheat but only with milky juice. All this, and much more, the air carries with it. Things it doesn’t carry are dust, smoke, suffocating poisons.… Rajiv wished he could spend his entire winter vacation there. But how? He had to go to Lucknow and Allahabad too. A long-standing obligation to old friends there.
The morning train came, made its short stop, and left. Everything stirred up for a little while. From where he sat, Rajiv could see Babuji quickly pacing his way to the brakeman’s car. Now it is all quite again. The few people on the platform are gone too. A sound is left, though — the sound of departing train — gradually becoming softer and softer. Is there really a sound, or does he only think there is? Maybe, just the echo, still lingering in the ears.
“What shall I make for lunch?” Amma was standing by the open door.
“What? Lunch after what you just fed me?”
“Come, now. You will be hungry in a little while.… This is bad here. No market around for fresh vegetables. Have to send someone to Unnao every other day. There is a cauliflower from yesterday. Shall I cook it? And karhi and rice?”
A man was coming from the railway office. It was Shambhu again.
“Namaste, bhaiyaji,” he greeted Rajiv and handed over a bag to Amma. “Babuji said he would be home soon.”
“Ay Shambhu! Has someone gone to Unnao or not? There are no vegetables for the evening,” Amma asked Shambhu, who had already gone halfway back.
“Yes, Ammaji. Maiku has gone.”
Amma pulled out the contents of the bag Shambhu had brought. A bottle of locally distilled liquor.
Rajiv looked at Ma’s face. A twist on her lips. Wrinkles on her forehead.
“This goes on here too?” he asked.
“What do you think? Not a day goes without.… But he has cut down much. I myself measure a pint every night. That’s all.” Looking for a moment at Rajiv’s face, she continued, “He cannot leave it. Even the doctor said it would do him harm if he gave up completely.… It isn’t the same thing, son. Not like the old days. No fights with anyone. No shouting. Whatever he has to say he says to me only.”
“But doesn’t he bother you?”
“I am not the one to be bothered by him. Beyond his reach. If I were to fear him, I couldn’t have raised you all.”
The pots rattled in the kitchen, distracting Amma’s attention.
“Ah, this cat! God knows when I am going to get rid of it.” Amma rushed into the house.
Memories. Numerous impressions printed on a large, lifelong canvas. Things Rajiv doesn’t want to remember keep coming alive.… Two little brothers sharing a little desk. Face-to-face, with a lantern in the middle. Open books before them, but they cannot read. In the other room Babuji is shouting loudly while eating his meal… jhannn.… There goes the brass plate, with food on it. Small metal bowls rolling over. Two pairs of the little eyes met each other. Eyes filled with fear. Eyes with tiny tears floating in the corners.… Amma’s loud curses hitting the walls, hitting the sky. No evil wish is spared.… There go the kicks, the blows. Several pairs of little hands try to pull Babuji back. The younger ones cry in bed. Tearing the roof apart by their cries. A crowd outside. But no one dares interrupt. The ones who do soon become the victims of his rage.… Midnight. The entire station staff is running wild. Finally they found him on the railway track near the distant outer signal. Determined to kill himself. Oh, God. What a miraculous escape. The through train was due in a few minutes. Now tied to the cot with a rope. Amma spread out on the floor. Head swollen from violently hitting the concrete. But still cursing. Cursing loud. Cursing him. Cursing her fate. Cursing the sky. Cursing the children. Cursing the neighbours for bringing him back alive. A few little hands busy wiping foam on the father’s mouth. The others trying to calm the mother.… Night after night. Something or the other. With the growing dusk grew the number of heartbeats. With the growing dusk little prayers would go up. Please, God, Divine. Not tonight. Please. And on nights when nothing happened flowers bloomed in the little hearts. Spring colours glowed on cheerful little faces. But how few were such nights.… In the school, on the playground, in the little bazaar of the town, wherever they went, people whispered: “There they are. Children of…” Some smiled. Some sympathised.
Cursed, haunted childhood. Again and again, Rajiv’s mind rebelled. Again and again, he wished he could free himself by severing all his ties. How many times he wished he were someone else’s son. To say it out loud that he had nothing to do with them. But was it easy to disown parents, to severe blood bonds? Slowly and gradually they kept growing. Kept going to schools. Powerful is man’s capacity to adapt. To be able to live in all kinds of circumstances. Life went on. Years rolled by. Babuji did not change. But many other things did. First, Bhaiya — the older brother — got out. Finished his B.A., found a job in Delhi, and went away. Then Rajiv left. Followed by Sanjiv and then by Pradeep. Lastly, Munni came to Delhi, too. They are all in Delhi. It was ten years ago when Bhaiya first left. Ten long years. He started with a twenty-rupees-a-month room; they now have a large, five bedroom house of their own. Starting as a salesman, Bhaiya is now a branch manager of a big foreign firm. Rajiv teaches at the university. He also spent two years at Oxford on a scholarship. Sanjiv is a textile engineer in a large mill. Pradeep is studying medicine. Munni has started college, too. Full, wholesome lives. Bhaiya was married a long time ago. Since then Rajiv and Sanjiv were married, too. They all lived together.
Babuji and Amma were left alone. A gulf in between. A gulf that became wider and wider as the years went by. On holidays, on vacations, when they visited their children, they felt like guests, like strangers in a very different world.
Then came the day when Babuji retired from his job. It was one thing to pack everything and come to Delhi with Amma, quite another to become part of the life there. Rajiv remembers how apprehensive they all were about their coming. There was no choice, though. With some adjustment a room was vacated for Babuji and Amma. But they weren’t pieces of furniture to stay wherever they were place. They needed something more than a room to themselves. That something could not be given. Everyone was busy. Out, all day long. In their room, busy with their work when at home. Hardly any time to sit around and chat. Women were busy too. Munni with her homework. Rajiv’s wife was a college teacher. Sanjiv’s was finishing her M.A. Bhabhi — Bhaiya’s wife — was the only one around the house. But managing the large household and looking after her two small children were more than enough for her.
And before long Babuji began to realise that he shouldn’t have come to Delhi. He felt ignored, left out. Annoyed when he noticed that Amma would take sides with boys. All day long she would sit with him, even gossiping about the sons and daughters-in-law. But come the evening, with everyone back home, she would go over to them, talking away.
On his retirement Babuji had resolved to give up drinking. This didn’t last even two weeks. Visits began to the contractor’s shop. But these were no longer the days of being a stationmaster, when bottles would just arrive without worry. Now he needed cash every time he visited the shop. Rows over money occurred with mother. The fixed pension money could not be squandered like that. But it wasn’t only money. Evenings became noisy. Silent, day-long resentments would find an outlet at nights. One morning, while leaving for work, Bhaiya laid it out plainly. It was Delhi and a neighbourhood of civilised people. One couldn’t shout around here like that. When the night came on that day, his voice was louder than ever. It seemed that Babuji had consumed two nights’ quota in one. “Those people out there are civilised! What are we? Bums? Scoundrels? We, whose seed brought you to life…” An outburst that didn’t seem like it would stop. Windows began to open in the neighbouring houses. Curious, worried heads sticking out. And then, all limits of decency were crossed. Rajiv does not want to remember the behaviour they all engaged in that night. Everyone screaming. Next morning they gave them a collective ultimatum. Not one more day. Go, where you want to. You can’t live here any more. Babuji and Amma left. No one knew where they went. A letter came some weeks later. After much running around Babuji was able to get a three-year extension on the railway job and was posted at this branch line station near Unnao. The rest of their things were sent away. That was six months ago. A few letters in-between, and Rajiv had come to spend a part of his winter vacation with his parents.
Abruptly, he threw the unfinished cigarette away. How long had Babuji been standing by his side?
“Did you get enough sleep?”
“Sort of. Got up at eight.… Is this today’s paper? Do you get papers here?”
“Yes. With the morning train. I get it in Urdu for myself. Asked for this English one for you.” And he handed over a copy of the Pioneer to Rajiv.
“Yes. I told the man yesterday. Knew you would be coming this morning.”
Rajiv suddenly remembered the Urdu books he had brought for Babuji, knowing how much he liked reading fiction in his spare time. He went inside the house to fetch the books. Also a pair of woollen socks and a pullover. There was a new shawl for Ma, too.
Babuji had pulled a cot into the sun and had settled down with his newspaper.
“Brought these books for you. And these…”
“Oh, yes!” His face suddenly gleamed with unconcealed joy. Eyes glowing. He gently handled the sweater, the socks, like precious little things. Turned them around several times.
“Who knitted them?”
“Everyone joined hands.”
Babuji took his sweater off and put on the new one. Rajiv reached his back to help him. Amma appeared at the door.
“What are you staring at? My daughters-in-law have knitted them for me.”
“O-ho! That’s strange! All this affection for the poor old man. Who could have expected this from them?”
“There she goes with her nonsense. Don’t you have any control on your tongue? What is wrong with my daughters-in-law?”
“Look at this sudden outpour of love for them! How come your tongue never got tired calling them names everyday?”
“Do I? Did I ever call them names? You should be ashamed of yourself. Blaming me. I say it is due to you.”
“Of course, it is always me. I am the one who gets drunk. I am the one who raises hell every night.”
“What is the matter with you people…?” Rajiv interrupted. “Look at this shawl, Ma. Let’s see how it looks on you.”
“You saw it, didn’t you, son? All the evil things he says, all the evil things he does, and I am the one who gets the blame.”
“Come on.… Leave it.… Look… do you like the shawl?”
“It’s kind of nice.… Must be very expensive.”
“What has that to do with you? You like it, don’t you?”
“As if you know what colours are,” Babuji said. “Picking on things. Bring it. Bring it over here if you do not like it. I will wear it.”
“You stay there. The big shot. Haven’t you got your sweater already?”
“The sweater my daughters-in-law have sent me.”
“So! The shawl my son has brought.”
“Is he only your son? Not mine?”
Rajiv finds it difficult to bear so much joy. A chill runs through his blood; dampness in the corners of his eyes. This one moment seems more precious than the total wealth of the world. He wondered if what had happened necessarily had to happen. Alright. It did happen. Can’t that be forgotten now? For ever. All this, here, so pleasant, so sweet, so sublime. Can’t it be like this, always?
Who should he blame? This person, their father, who is so simple-hearted that the slightest show of affection from his sons can overwhelm him with joy? That’s all it takes. Is it too much to expect, at this stage of his life? And Rajiv felt that they had failed. They had ignored him. Drunkenness? But who is free from weaknesses? If only they had given him attention, love.… but… Was it really simple.…
“I say, stop it now. Wasn’t a pint enough for you?” There is annoyance in mother’s voice.
“None of your business. A pint! Who the hell do you think you are, to tell me? Bring that bottle out.” There is a commanding tone in father’s voice.
Rajiv sits up on the bed in the dark back room. Quilt spread on his legs. A patch of light reaches into his room through the door, making a triangle on the floor. It is dark around him, but he can see almost every thing in the other room. Babuji is sitting cross-legged on the cot. Back bent forward. Wearing his new sweater. A blanket covering his legs. A woollen scarf around his head. Before him is a big round lamp on a little stool. His shadow out of all proportion — gigantic — covering almost the whole of the back wall. The slightest movement in his body creates large waves on the wall. From where he sits, Rajiv cannot see Ma, but he knows she is there, right in front of Babuji, on the verandah, with the makeshift kitchen around her.
It is heavy night outside. loaded air. Fog filling up the empty space between the earth and the sky. Rajiv knows it is standing outside the doors and the windows — the fog — eager to get in. His eyelids are heavy, too. He has already eaten and now wants to sleep.
“Didn’t you hear me? Where is that bottle?” Babuji thundered again. He has finished a pint in half an hour, and his voice is already robust and warm.
“Won’t you, please,” Amma pleaded. “It is too late. How long do you think I could keep this fire going? It is going out again.”
“Let it go. Cook the rotis and put them away.”
“Oh yes? Who is then going to throw the cold rotis on me?”
“Arguing for nothing…” And Babuji got up off the cot.
“Alright, alright. You sit there. I will get it.”
Amma came inside the back room. By the side of Rajiv’s bed, from behind the trunks, she pulled the bottle out. Seeing him sitting up in the dark, she said, “You go to sleep, Raji. Don’t worry about him. It goes on like this every day.”
Reaching Babuji, she continued: “Why don’t you eat quickly and go to sleep too? Filling up the whole house with noise! How can poor Raji sleep?”
“Am I stopping him? Why doesn’t he sleep?” Babuji retorted as he snatched the bottle away from Amma’s hands. He began to pour the liquor into his small bottle.
“Okay. stop it. Stop it now.… How much do you want to drink?… Look, look Raji, he filled it up again.”
“What are you telling him? Am I afraid of him? This isn’t Delhi. I drink out of my earnings.… Take it. Take this bottle away.”
Rajiv looks without seeing anything. Indifferent. As if this one event was among the many things that are constantly happening on this vast earth — things he cannot relate to.
Babuji turned his head up and poured down a mouthful. One big gulp and it went down. Face crisscrossed with numerous wrinkles. Eyes tightly closed. As if the skin was being pulled in different directions. But only for short moment. When the eyes opened again, there was extra brightness in them.
He closed the bottle with a cork and put it on the stool.
“What with that cheap shawl he has brought, you sit there like a maharani! Did you ever have any dignity, any self-respect? Licking the crumbs always.”
Finding it too much, Ma flared back, “I go after crumbs! Look at you. All wrapped up in that sweater!”
“I don’t depend on such sweaters. You think that I am going to keep it. I don’t give a damn. Won’t even pee on it. What do you think I am!”
“Alright, alright, keep quite, will you? What is Raji going to think…?”
“Let him think what he wants to. You are the one to worry about them. You think I care?… And you? Covering him now. Forgot the day when your sons kicked you out of the house…?”
“So? Go tell those who did it. Why accuse him?”
“He isn’t any innocent. They are all in it together. You might think he was a saint. I say they are all the same.”
Rajiv’s eyes are fixed. Staring. Words dropping in his ears, one by one. Do they mean anything? He tries to think but can’t. Was he sleepy? No, not anymore. He looks at the man in front of him, sitting by the bright lamp. The outlines of his body appear as though drawn in gold. The tip of the nose is shining but its shadow has left one third of the face in dark. One of the eyes he cannot even see. Back there, on the wall, is that immense shadow — like a huge monster ready to leap down to grab. Does it all remind him of a certain scene he had read about in a novel?
Babuji swallowed a few more gulps from the bottle.
“Shameless bastards! They think they have become big shots. What kind of men are you who didn’t know how to respect your parents? Slaves of your wives. Did you ever think your parents were in the house, too? Came home and grabbed your wife! And there was Bhishm who remained a lifelong celibate, just for his father’s sake. Look at our progeny!”
This must stop, somehow. Slowly, a feeling of contempt is overtaking Rajiv. He finds it difficult to maintain his remoteness, his indifference. But Babuji continues, unchecked. The voice becomes louder and louder.
“You think you came to this world on your own. Don’t you fool yourself. We produced you. We. We are your creators. Greater than God. You didn’t even measure up to a palm when you came. Should have talked like this then. But how could you? You didn’t even know how to pee. We brought you up. We nurtured you, with our own blood. Tying up our own bellies, we put you through school. Made you into men. And you insult us today! Throw us out. Is this what we raised you for?” The voice has a high pitch. Neighbours must be hearing it all.
“But why don’t you stop it now. How long do you think you are going to go on?” Amma tried to interrupt.
“You keep quiet! Filthy old bitch! It is all because of you. ‘Let’s go to Delhi… let’s go to Delhi,’ you kept saying. Did you see what you got from Delhi?”
“Alright, it was all because of me…. Why not stay quiet now? Poor Raji. He came such a distance….”
“But why?” A loud crash. Eyes popping out. “Why did he come? What else does he want…?”
Rajiv could not take it anymore. In a sharp, angry voice he said, “Don’t you say one more thing. And don’t you worry. I will go back tomorrow.”
“Go. Now. Right now. You bastard. Trying to threaten me! What gives you the right to scream at me? This isn’t Delhi. This is my house. My empire. You can shout when we come to your doorstep. ‘I will go back!’ Why don’t you? Did anyone ask you to come here? We don’t need anybody here. Go. Right away. You think you are going to scare me by shouting. I don’t fear anybody. Nobody. I am still earning. I buy my bottles….”
The monster on the wall was shaking violently.
Rajiv was filled with deep contempt and hate. No, he could not have any sympathy for this man.
Neven, never, could this man be his father.
Amma was sitting by Rajiv’s side. Trying to calm him down. This only increased the aggravation. Mounting irritation. What has gone wrong again? He did not come here to create new tensions. But why? Why does it always come to this?
A misty, greyish morning. Thick, heavy fog still hanging like a sheet. It is almost nine but no sign of the sun yet. Everything still and quiet. Not even a leaf is moving. Occasionally, drops of settled fog would fall from the trees.
A few people on the platform. Waiting for the train. With both hands in his coat pockets Rajiv walked into the office. Babuji working at his desk. Not one trace on his face of what had happened the night before. A surprised look as he saw Rajiv walking in.
“I am going back by this train.”
“Ay… what?” Mouth wide open.
Rajiv hesitated a bit, then said, “Have to go. There are just a few days of vacation. Have to go to Lucknow and Allahabad too.”
Babuji appeared at a loss, startled. “Couldn’t you stay a few more days? You came only yesterday.”
“Came to meet you people. That has been done….” Rajiv was finding it difficult to come up with any explanation. “I have packed already.”
There wasn’t much more to say. Babuji fell quiet and hung his head.
A few moments went by.
Rajiv took a bill out of his wallet. “Could you give me a ticket to Lucknow?”
Babuji quickly looked up. Rajiv could not continue looking in his eyes. So much pain in there. Could one beg so much, so meekly, just by looking?
“You angry with me, son?”
“No, no…. Please… I did have to go….” What is he doing to his father now? Putting all this extra weight on his chest….
“You know this is my habit. I get drunk and say all those silly things. You should not mind all that.”
But isn’t that your real self? Your true self. Things that bother you. Things you think about. Things you want to say out loud. Your pride. Free from pretensions. Rajiv thinks all this. But he knows he wouldn’t be able to say it.
“Please, honestly. Don’t worry. I didn’t mind anything.”
The train has arrived. His bags are on it. Rajiv bends down to touch Babuji’s feet. Babuji embraces him tight. All the barriers suddenly break loose.
“Will you forgive your father, Raji?… I am so worthless, miserable. Never have I given you people any happiness….” And then the voice chokes.
Rajiv, too, wants to say something of the same kind. But he cannot. His voice fails him. The train begins to move and he quickly climbs on.
The slowly moving train is leaving Babuji behind. Standing still. A blanket covering him from his head down to his knees, a tahmad hanging down to his ankles, woollen socks and toeless sandals.
When the train passes by the house Rajiv sees Amma standing in the middle of the door. An edge of her sari held between her teeth. As he raises his folded hands to say pranam, Amma’s whole body appears to be shaking.
The train picks up speed. The two figures are left behind. Soon the fog engulfs everything.
And Rajiv realised that he had made yet another mistake by coming back like this.
Translated from the Hindi by the author