tika for Jung Bahadur - 2
If Tara saw him watching her, she did not show it. Her glances, eyes lowered, were only for Kesan, who looked at her and smiled, handsome as a god in a silken painting. He was no longer a boy, but a man. Tara no longer a girl, but a woman. Each seemed to make the other complete, to become what they had to become. The old people of the village watched the two, and saw themselves as they had been in their youth. It was good, it was the way things were meant to be. Kesanís parents went to meet Taraís parents. They talked and the details were settled. Tara and Kesan no longer looked at each other when they passed by, shy as strangers bound by an open intimacy. The village began to prepare for the wedding, the smell of millet beer and salted meat adding a tang of anticipation to the air.
Jung Bahadur left before the festivities. He told no one he was going, leaving the sleeping village before dawn. He walked away from the valley into the high ranges, where the ghost of snow still lay in the shadows away from the summer sun. He walked through the days, through the emptiness of rock and ice, seeing no one. Nights, he sought what shelter he could find in fissures away from the wind, and once in a ruined monastery. He ate the dried meat and roasted barley heíd brought with him, and once or twice the small rodent-like animals he managed to trap. What did he think of, what did he feel in that vast solitude, under the frozen fire of the stars? He did not know. The wind cut through him, through clothes and skin and bone and found only an emptiness that cold could not touch. I feel nothing, I am nothing, he might have said to himself. Except the words to say anything with were also gone, blown away like sand in the wind.
He walked for what may have been a week, then he began his descent into the valley. He saw the cluster of the village below him take shape and detail as he drew nearer. He passed an outcrop of rock and the village disappeared from view. He was in a hollow filled with afternoon sun, the heat softened by a dampness of moss and ferns. A spring splashed into a long, narrow pool. Jung Bahadur knew the place well; Kesan and he had often swum here in summers past. Then he saw her. She was at the far end of the pool. He sank to his knees behind a rock, spellbound. His gaze magnified each detail: the sheen of every strand of her wet hair, the drops that coursed down over taut skin, the silver bubbles that sparkled against the cleft where her body merged with the water. Through his hidden eyes he took her in deep within himself where the emptiness was filled with the plenitude of her beauty.
He had seen the sunset paint rainbow colours on the snow mountains, the firefly dance of the stars in the night sky, the trees bursting into leaf in the astonishment of spring. He had never found any words to describe these and many other things heíd seen for which no language that he knew of had been created. Now that void was filled. He had a word for all this, and more, a vocabulary consisting of the single sound of her name and spelt by the cursive alphabet of her body. Tara, he said to himself. And this time the syllables did not stay trapped in his throat but emerged soundless in the listening air. He could hear nothing over the pulsing cataract of his heartbeat.
A flicker of movement made him turn. Kesan stood there, less than ten paces away, looking at him, face and eyes expressionless. The girl in the pool was unaware of either of them. Jung Bahadur looked at himself through the blankness of Kesanís eyes. What did he look like, seen through them? He felt the other was looking deep within him, seeing there what Jung Bahadur himself had never seen. The earth beneath, the rock he was crouched against, seemed to lose all weight, their crushing heaviness transferred to a stone inside him. Moments ago he had for the first time understood what beauty meant. Now he understood its opposite: shame. Shame at the desire, furtive as a thief in the night, to steal beauty from its possessor, knowing the theft to be worthless, for what was sought can never be taken, but if at all, only given. Throwing his arm across his face to ward off Kesanís stare, Jung Bahadur ran from the eyes of his accuser.
In the confined world of the village, it was impossible to run away. Even when he evaded the other, Jung Bahadur felt trapped in Kesanís gaze. Kesan had obviously not told Tara or any of the other villagers what had happened; everyone treated Jung Bahadur as they had before. What had happened was a secret between Kesan and himself, a shared knowledge of guilt and judgment far worse than any public outcry.
The windows of the houses became Kesanís eyes, the beating of the sun on Jung Bahadurís back was Kesanís stare. There was no escape from that pitiless gaze, unforgiving, unbearable. Wherever he went it followed him; the more he hid from it, the more intense its scrutiny became. It had to end.
Four days after the incident by the pool, Jung Bahadur went up to Kesan. The other looked at him through flat eyes. Will you climb with me? asked Jung Bahadur. Climb where? Kesan asked in reply, his voice as expressionless as his face.
The Peace Keeper, said Jung Bahadur. Kesanís eyes did not flicker. It is forbidden to climb the Peace Keeper, he said. Will you climb with me? asked Jung Bahadur. He waited in silence for Kesanís reply. Kesan nodded. Tomorrow, at first light, said Jung Bahadur and walked away.
They met at the foot of the Peace Keeper before dawn, the shadows blue and cool at the base of the cliff face. The Peace Keeper was a sheer rock wall, forty times the height of a tall man. To climb it was a test of nerve and strength and skill. It wasnít just a cliff; it was combat.
In the old days, when two men had a dispute to settle one would challenge the other to climb the rock face with him. If the challenge was turned down, the dispute was over. If the challenge was taken up, one of three things could happen. One of the climbers could fall to his death, both of them could fall, or both could survive the climb. In each case, the dispute would be resolved. For even if both the climbers survived, the ordeal they had lived through together showed them how insignificant the cause of their conflict had been. Not worth fighting and dying for. Thatís why it was called the Peace Keeper; it helped men find peace between each other and within themselves. But after several young men had fallen and died, the village elders banned the custom. Those who flouted the ban risked not only their lives if they failed, but expulsion and exile from the community if they succeeded. For more than a generation now, no one had dared to make or to meet the challenge of the Peace Keeper.
The rock rearing high above them, Kesan and Jung Bahadur exchanged no look or greeting. Side by side, in silence, they began to climb.
Jung Bahadur would have the nightmare as long as he lived. Kesan and he were a little more than halfway up the Peace Keeper, spreadeagled against the rock like spiders, feet and fingers searching and finding the smallest of holds. There was no wind, the silence broken only by the scuffle of cloth and leather and skin on rock, and the hoarse gasp of breath, limbs and faces pressed against the cliff as though to a loverís body. Kesan was slightly higher and to the left of him. A sudden rattle of falling stones as a foothold gave way, and Kesan began to slew off balance against the cliff. Jung Bahadur reached up and out and steadied Kesanís foot back against the rock. He crawled up the cliff till their faces were level, looking into each otherís eyes for the first time since the challenge to climb the Peace Keeper had been made and met. Then Jung Bahadurís left hand slipped, and his body began to come off the rock. Terror flared in him, cramping his muscles. Help me, he cried, mouth twisted with panic. Here, hold on, said Kesan, putting out his right hand. Their hands gripped. And then, still looking into his eyes, Kesan opened his fingers and let Jung Bahadurís hand slip from his grasp, and Jung Bahadur peeled away from the rock, falling backwards, down through an endless dark tunnel of his soundless scream, falling backwards, downwards, endless, Kesan far away, up there, down there, falling, falling.
And in the moment before he fell into wakefulness he would know that it was not Kesan who released his grip, but he. Not Kesan who remained on the rock, but he. Kesan who fell, not he. I let go of his hand. I killed him, I let him fall, said Jung Bahadur on the rock, in the inescapable moment before his eyes opened from sleep. Thatís what made it a nightmare.
Three days after Kesanís cremation ó Tara watching Jung Bahadur through the flames, eyes unfathomable, as though Kesan had been reborn in them ó the man searching for recruits had come to the village. Jung Bahadur had gone away with him to become a mercenary soldier, a man who fought and killed for money. He did not know when, or if, heíd see the village, or Tara, again. It did not matter. All that mattered at the moment was flight. Flight from those eyes which in saying nothing said everything, from the silence against which his words rattled, repeated over and over, meaningless as stones thrown against a wall: He fell. It was an accident. I tried to hold him, but his hand slipped from mine. He fell. It was an accident.
His words tried to fill the silence in which no one, not Tara, no one, asked him: Why? Why, the day before his wedding, had Kesan gone to climb the Peace Keeper with him? Why? No one asked it. And in the silence of the unasked question, his words were a judgment he visited on himself: He fell; it was an accident.
The words would become a litany which he would repeat to himself. The other words came only in the nightmare, just before it ended, and he awoke. I let go of his hand. I killed him. I let him fall.
The director was shaking him by the shoulder, bringing him back from the abyss. What? said Jung Bahadur. The director said, You were talking about someone you knew, your best friend, who died before you went to become a soldier, and all of a sudden you stopped, and kept repeating ĎHe fell. It was an accident. He fell,í over and over again.
Jug Suraiya, best-known as a humour writer and satirist, is Style Editor of ĎThe Times of Indiaí. He lives in Delhi