|These days - 2|
Oh, the number of houses my friend and I had checked out! It was a long search, and finally we settled on this one. All the pros and cons were discussed. Should one go for an apartment or a plot of land? Security and easy maintenance were important issues. But think of the joy of building one’s own house! Then we started examining the colonies. Which housing colony would be the best? That one was too close to the market and divided according to religion. But in this colony, everyone was educated. A mixed bag of professionals — doctors and professors — of all communities, Christians, Parsis and others.
By every consideration, this colony was ideal and my friend took a housing loan.
I recall that old, rundown house. As every generation passes away, their profiteering sons pull down their houses and raise multi-storeyed buildings. This house, too, would have met the same fate. All these lovely old trees too would have been chopped away and rows of flats would be crowding right up to the road, designed to extract all possible profit.
I looked at the trees in the compound through my friend’s eyes. He must have bought this house to save these trees. On one side was the semul tree, the branches of the chameli adorned the verandah, the kachnar and mango trees in front, an all-season lemon tree and of course, the neem. How could one think of uprooting these trees for profit? We were happy that unlike others who had to grow trees from scratch, we had found a house with full-grown shady trees. We thought we would adopt these trees but in truth, the trees adopted us. The trees exuded more compassion perhaps than us. I would walk here from my flat early in the morning and have a cup of tea in the open as the breeze rustled through the trees.
And he would walk barefoot in the lawn, admiring the buds and leaves. His heart would rest awhile on a branch and then swing onto a leaf. He would spread his wings with a bird sitting on this branch and join the song of another.
Will these trees be saved? I can hear the crowds. They are far away, but their uproar is loud. It is like wearing a hearing aid that turns even a whisper into a scream. A pin drops, and it seems like a bomb.
Just then, I see him. A mere shadow.
He probably thinks that no one has seen him. Leaving the buildings behind, he is walking up the road. He is walking in the shadows of the trees lining the verge.
Only a thief would walk like that, I think in panic. I feel an unnamed dread. He will have to come out of the shadows to enter this house. I had switched off the globe lamps on either side of the gate after dinner, but he will have to pass under the streetlight in front of the gate. What will I do then, when I see him clearly?
But instead of coming up to the gate, he veers away along the boundary wall. A mere shadow. I can see his head bobbing over the wall. Where on earth is he going? I am puzzled. There is only an enclosure there where the whole colony’s garbage is dumped. A shadow among shadows, he seems to be heading there. It could be the shadow of a tree or a lurking thief.
What does he want? I sit rooted to the spot, wondering. My heart races but my body seems to be made of wood. May nothing happen, may nothing happen, says each heartbeat. My body has turned into a statue. Or do these strange times make me think it is best just to sit still?
A sidelong glance tells me that the shadow has stopped by the garbage dump. On the other side of the wall inside the compound is the big simul tree. Its branches are bent over the lane just where he is standing.
The simul tree. In the Holi season, in the month of Phagun, the simul blossoms. The old leaves have fallen away. The branches are now sprouting tiny fresh green leaves. The red simul flowers are gigantic in proportion and the leaves are hardly visible. Red petals surround the centre like a black bee, making it seem that flocks of black-beaked red birds are sitting on the branches. They seem to be fluttering their wings and might fly away any moment.
Yes, the birds seem to be ready for flight. And just then the shadow flies out and takes hold of a branch of the simul tree.
Just like a bird!
The shadow jumps, crouches on the wall and then hangs onto a branch inside the compound.
Just like a monkey!
We certainly have a talent for moving one step forward and twenty steps back!
There he is, hanging from the branch as though he has come all the way just to swing from the simul tree. Amidst the great confusion in my mind, I can still bet that he is doing the monkey trick for the first time in his life.
But bet with whom and bet on what?
I am sitting like a block of wood. Breathing gently, I wonder whether I should move or not. These days, one does not know if one is more likely to invite trouble by sitting still or making a move.
These days, the mind is numb. No one wants to make any move. It is best to be still, so that the raging fire does not come this way at least. And when the fire stops raging, we will get up. Maybe we will.
I too am lying low — stunned and silent. Now that he has reached here, I leave it all to destiny, whatever will happen will happen, I have no energy left in me.
And out there, the shadow is swinging from its own fate.
Some day, I will look back on this game that we are playing. Each of us alone, separate, fully aware of each other yet completely estranged. He in the dark of the simul tree and I in the light of the verandah. We are as alert as hunters who put on an act of elaborate indifference but are ready to leap and seize. Maybe!
He jumps down from the branch into the compound of the house, silently.
I switch off completely. Yes, completely. Otherwise, I could not sit still, pretending I can comprehend nothing. I am silent, as silent as someone listening to the footsteps of death. Ready to die without a tremor or a cry.
He remains rooted to the spot where he jumped.
For a long time, we stick to our respective positions. Fully engrossed in this strange game, we wait. A silent doubt travels between the two of us. We’ll do what is to be done and end this game any old how.
I am not looking his way, but I see him rise from the ground. For a moment he comes under the rays of the light. My heart races, afraid that I may look that way, do something. He buries his face in his neck and my skin breaks into goose pimples. He crosses from the light to the dark. Then by the side of the house, he swishes like a snake and disappears.
Shadow, wood. Bird, monkey, snake. Who knows what other form we yet have to take?
If the door is not bolted from inside it can be pushed open slightly with a hand and the latch can be opened. I hear the latch opening. If I continue with this newly acquired skill of holding my breath, I may still survive.
I start thinking of the house. This is my way of forgetting the shadow. It is as though the shadow is an entity separate from this house. As though there is no shadow in this house at this moment.
This house too will be burnt down! I will burn with it and so will he!
This house too will be burnt down! I will burn with it and so will he!
Today? Now? Tomorrow? When the Holika goes up in flames? Keh diya keh diya you are my sohnia.
Geetanjali Shree is prominent among the younger generation of
fiction writers in Hindi. She lives in Delhi