An old soldier  

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Anuradha Kumar

Sure enough it did. When for a brief moment, silence prevailed, he noticed Kaveri Bai standing next to him, something hidden in the folds of her sari. He would allow himself a smile and then the sudden truth behind her beetroot redness would strike him. She was not blushing, she was trying her best not to burst out laughing. Even as he was taking in the enormity of it all, he was looking at horror at what she held out before him - a tiny bird's cage with a bandicoot in it, its teeth stretched out in a fierce snarl as it gazed back at Sudarshan.

From somewhere distant, he heard a voice, a saccharine laden soft voice - Kaveri Bai's - saying," We thought there were so many creepy, crawly creatures in your vast mansion", and she was turning her head towards the lighthouse, ", that we would make you this wonderful present. And she thrust it into Sudarshan's outstretched hands, as a fresh wave of laughter dissimulated itself amongst the crowd.

For long moments Sudarshan stood there, his mouth agape, unbidden tears squirting up from his eyelids and drying up somewhere on his cheeks. Only when the last shopkeeper had slunk away did he move away slowly and sedately, taking one painful hobbled step after the other, counting them carefully, concentrating very hard - for he knew too well of the quivering inside that threatened to spill over, making him weep like a spurned cub-lover.

He remained confined to the barrel shaped room too unhappy with himself to bother about the cobwebs, the roaches that roamed freely helping themselves to his stores. He was too unhappy to do anything but weep for himself - berating himself soundly for being made for no fault of his own - destiny's scapegoat. His discharge from the army was for no fault of his - he had been punished for a senior officer's misdemeanours; his wife running way for everyone said he was useless; and now this. Like a boy, Sudarshan howled endlessly into the night, beating his fists first against the wall, than against his chest. He threw his stick away, and then made himself crawl himself on all fours in sheer ignominy to pick it up - for wasn't this what a man like him deserved. They had all made him rub his nose in the mud, and so he would himself.

So wrapped up in self-pity and pampered by his own misery, that Sudarshan never noticed when it first began drizzling. For the first few days he had hardly stepped out of the lower room of the lighthouse that he occupied, that he didn't notice the soft pelt of the raindrops against his skylight. He remained oblivious when the first cold lashes of water struck him for he thought they were his own tears. The water swirled around him, he felt the silken strands of the cobwebs caress his face, yet he remained half-crouched on the floor, the tears never far away.

It was a furry softness that rubbed repeatedly against his face that first told him that something else was the matter. For one thing, as he peered through the skylight, he encountered a vast inky blackness that was not really night; then he saw the blue flashes of light and heard the steady, rumble moan of thunder and he looked down to see the waters swirl around his knees and the furry softness rubbing against his face. It was really too dark to see anything, but Sudarshan knew that he was all alone in the midst of a raging flood. The rising waters, the unending growls of thunder and the eerie blue-blackness of the sky told him it was so.

He felt that furry movement again, and he understood that it was probably telling him to make haste. He had to move to a higher floor, to make himself safe. So he roused himself, found his cane and painfully half-crawled, half-tottered towards where he thought the stairs were. Something with sharp small teeth had dug its teeth into the hem of his trousers, although very gently and together they climbed the stairs towards the next room.

But the rain showed no signs of ending. Sudarshan remained confined to one corner of the room, very still, only his lips moved once in a while, where his furry friend dropped stray nuts and other morsels of food that he had managed to retrieve from the store. But his tears finally acknowledged the forces of the devastation that lashed all around him. The water glistened and glimmered maliciously as it rode slowly up the stairs, the thunder was no longer a low moan, but an awesome roar that seemed to be laughing up its sleeve. And Sudarshan saw the water as it entered stealthily but with an utter certainty, up the creaking stairs. It entered the room, guzzling up everything that lay in its path and then when felt the water on his ankles, Sudarshan rose with the determination he knew he always had but had always failed to display.

With the cane firmly in hand, he looked around for his unseen furry friend and felt him skipping on the stairs above that led directly to the tower. With his back held erect, his moustaches pressed firmly in place, his collar once more in place, Sudarshan strode with assurance towards the staircase. Once they were up there, they were safe for the waters had little way of reaching so high.

He had never been up the tower before and though he first shrugged in distaste when he saw the cobwebs as thick as ropes, he turned his thought to weightier matters. It was important to get the light started for he realized he was beginning to feel cold. It had been warm down there - but with the sun no longer visible, it was necessary to keep oneself warm, within his limitations.

It was quite a while after that he got the light going. He knew he would never have managed it without his furry friend's assistance - who seemed to knew where the oil was stored, how they had to operate the giant levers to get the fire blazing. And once the fire was blazing away merrily, Sudarshan turned to his next course of action - clean away the cobwebs. And armed with his cane, he proceeded to do just that.

He tried not to look out of the window, but he knew they all stood there, some on their makeshift rafts, struggling to stay afloat; others on their rapidly crumbling thatched roofs watching the scene unfold before them with bated breath. The pale light that shone forth from the tower, threw Sudarshan's shadow against the walls, magnifying it several times over. They saw him, cackling with a devilish merriment, holding his cane aloft, twined around huge thick ropes while behind him, his mouth open in obvious merriment, his teeth clacking sharply against each other was a giant furry creature — the bandicoot. 

This copy is posted as it was received. It has not been edited by TLM

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