By: Prawin Adhikari. Published on Kurakani.com in October 2002.
‘But this child… what if he is still alive? See his pulse at least!’ the man said. ‘I can’t let a child die before my eyes! What father would that make me?’
‘He is dead, can’t you see?’ the woman moaned. ‘You just go! Go away!’
‘And what will you do by yourself, Kaki?’
‘I will take the dip after everything is done if that will remedy this sin,’ said the man. ‘But you go on now to the village, or at least, to Harke’s. Send any man you find. Now go… go on!’
‘Hrrrmmm!’ the old woman moaned angrily and shook her fists at the man. ‘No respect for age anymore! They will remedy their sin, they say! You will keep regular bratas now, you hear me, and you will take a dip in the Gangaji every day till your son is born. It will be a son, I know! Arrrhhh! What a father but!’
‘Alright! alright! Whatever you say, Kaki! But go on now!’
The Gangaji was wide and slow and shallowest there in miles. The mango grove across the river was the closest from this bend, and young men would dare each other across in the months of floods. But there was no flood today. There had been one yesterday. Today was a good day for fishing. The unrest brought the fishes out. I was there to watch the older men fish. The old woman hadn’t seen me, or I would have had to run. I wanted to see the dead child too.
‘Where did you see it first?’ asked the man. He had dragged the corpse out from the wild currents of the Marshyangdi when I shouted out to him.
‘Nowhere,’ I said. ‘Nowhere in particular, I mean. It was near the middle of the current — near that flat stone there. I think the headbanged right into the stone. That’s when I shouted.’
‘You have a very peculiar way of talking.’
The man looked at me with squinted eyes. He was trying to guess who I was, I could see. But I don’t take after any of my parents. Nor my grandparents. They say I faintly resemble each of them, but none too strongly. It is pretty difficult to guess who I am. The man stopped trying. He did not want to know if he knew me, because then that would mean I knew him too. Women talk, and they talk alike. In a small village, they talk the same. He did not want the womenfolk in my home to know he had been messing with a dead child although he knew his wife was with a baby.
‘Is it alive?’ I asked. I knew it wasn’t. ‘No,’ said the man. He hesitated for a while and asked me to walk over to his side. ‘Look!’
I had not seen the face before. The man was showing me its left eye. There was no left eye. A deep hollow. Red. No eyeball. He had to be dead.
‘Get me a leaf — any leaf large enough.’ The man was disturbed. His voice was desperate. ‘Why?’ I asked.
‘To cover the face. I can’t bear to look at it. Look at the eye! It is a horrible sight.’ I did not stir. I had never seen a dead body before. Dead bodies were bad omen, and we the children were supposed to avoid all scenes of accidents and funeral processions. Dead people were supposed to be scary. They get up in the middle of the night and roam the riverside. They have eyes in the chest and feet turned the wrong way back. Dead people were a rare sight to me. I knew a couple of young village men who claimed to have seen a few, never capable of naming them exactly or doing so with a cautious look around to see if a relative of the intended dead was around. I could make no such claim. His other eye was beautifully half shut, like the Buddha’s, and glossy like glass. If he were to smile now, lying down in the sand, an ant crawling into the crater that was once an eye’s home and the other eye like the Buddha’s, he would look beautiful and scary.
‘Get me a leaf!’ the man shouted, throwing a small pebble at me. He started looking at me in his strange way again. Before he could recollect my identity or ask me of my parents, I ran and got him a broadleaf. The man covered the eyeless half of the dead face with it and sighed in relief. ‘He must be your age,’ the man said to me. ‘How old are you, boy?
‘Seven,’ I replied. ‘But I am big for my age.’
The man laughed. ‘Yes, indeed! You are big for your age. And you talk big for your age too. He must be older than you, then. Though not much…’
‘Perhaps he looks older than his age too,’ I said, ‘or maybe he is the kind that doesn’t look their age. I mean the kind that looks smaller than their age, if not younger.’ I had failed to impress him. I could sense that. The man was a boring conversation. He was standing by a dead boy, that too one who had a missing eye and was afraid to look into the socket. You can always look into people’s eyes– my grandmother always claimed she could tell what a child was thinking by looking into his eyes, but you rarely get to look into people’s eye-sockets. I wanted to have a lot of exciting things to say to my friends in the evening. A dead body is an exciting thing. A dead boy, who did not die of malnutrition or tuberculosis or heart ailments or tapeworms or a stepmother, and who had a red hollow socket to go with a half-closed eye was even more exciting. They would all be excited — Rameshwor and Rajan and Min Kumar and Ek Narayan. They would be sorry to have missed the sight.
‘But you go on now, boy!’ said the man. The adult sense of responsibility towards the children was taking over him. He did not want me to stand there with him, watching the dead boy and watch him watch the dead boy. ‘He is not your friend, is he?’ he asked me. What a foolish question to ask, thought I, and how ill-timed. ‘No, he is not from our village. Not that I know of, at least.’ I would have been scared if he were my friend, and I would definitely not have stayed on to look over the body if he had been from our village. Somehow, a dead you know is spookier than a dead you didn’t know.
I ran towards the river, plunged in and scrambled out. I do not know how to swim but the plunge was required. There are many kinds of ill omens that can befall you, and the Gangaji can wash them all away. I had been with a dead body. I had not touched it, but still. I had spotted the body, and I had made the man drag it out of the river. The old albino always walks to the Gangaji for a dip in the morning, and Rameshwor says it is because he hopes someday the river takes him away. You go straight to heaven if you drown in Gangaji, but not if you jump into it to kill yourself. So the albino is smart, you see. And he perhaps wants to make sure he won’t be born an albino again in his next life. Perhaps he killed himself by jumping into the Gangaji in his last life. I would have made a second dip, just to make double sure all my sins were washed, but the water was too cold. Gangaji washes away one’s fears too, but not the cold.
I ran along the banks, further down the river, to the confluence where the clear Daraundi tried to violate the murkiness of a violent Marshyangdi. The rivers made more of noise there, and the older boys cheered and jumped into the river to impress the girls from the city trudging uphill with their frail determination to Mankamana. The village ghat was at the confluence, and deep in the riverbed were human bones and occasional skulls that the older boys dived for. No one dared bring the skulls to the bank, but there was a great commotion among the onlookers whenever one was found. I always found the skull dives discomforting to watch. That skull could be anyone’s great grandfather. Or uncle, or friend. But as long as the hunt was on, and as long as the big boys challenged each other to impossible feats, it was fun to watch. I could while away my afternoons watching the others swim and try to drown each other and try to rescue the little kids who did actually drown. No one died, usually. You have to give a river her share of lives, they said if they couldn’t save anyone from drowning. Drowning in the Gangaji took you straight to heaven, anyways.
‘Why have you come?’ Shiva Narayan asked me. His name is strange, you see– he is both Shiva and Narayan. His father is very pious– my mother says because he lost his left eye in his childhood and that makes a lot of trouble for him when he goes out to tend to his goats. There is also a story in the Shuka-Sagara where a womanizing merchant goes to Baikuntha because he takes his son Hari’s name in the deathbed. Shiva Narayan’s father must have sought to make it double sure that he wouldn’t be denied heaven– Kailash, if not Baikuntha. ‘Does your father own this river?’ I asked.
‘But you can’t half swim! I’ll have to dive for you if you drown in the Daraundi!’ he mocked at me. I wouldn’t drown in Daraundi! The spot where I would splash around with the other kids who couldn’t swim wasn’t deep enough for that. But Shiva Narayan liked to pick a fight, especially with people smaller than him. I once threw a handful of sand into his eyes when he tried to pick on me. He has always been very cautious since. I was in no mood to lose my standing. Who knows what would happen in the cold water? I could be swept away by the river into the larger river, and then I could certainly drown. I decided not to take any chances. ‘I am not swimming, anyway. I came to watch the dives for the bones.’
He was too busy admiring his flexed biceps, and dived off into the current, resurfacing a good ten meters downstream. I looked around to find someone to talk about the boy I had seen. I would tell them I had seen a boy– they would say so did I, what’s the good of it? Then I’d tell them I saw a boy in the river, and he was floating downstream and I shouted at a man who dragged him out of the water. They’d drop their jaws and ask the other boys to shut up. Then, when everyone would be listening to me with all their attention, I’d tell them that the boy didn’t have the left eye. An ant crawled into the pink hole. If Karki’s little son screamed because that frightened him, I’d be the first to box his ears and call him a little girl.
The riverbanks were crowded mostly with older boys. I had forgotten it was a school day. The older boys could stay away from the school and go around stealing mangoes and throwing stolen dynamite sticks into the river for fishes. Once a man lit up the fuse and missed the count before throwing the dynamite stick into the river. The stick exploded in his right hand, and soon he had none. Nobody ate fish for the next few weeks, and when they started to, everyone was slitting up the larger fishes expecting to find the man’s gold ring like in the Shakuntala story. Of course, no one ever did. When there was a newspaper rumour that a man in Calcutta had found one, there was a fierce debate in the village if it could be the unfortunate man’s, and what would be the appropriate thing to do if he wanted to recover the gold. There was enough clover on the high mound over the confluence if I wanted to make grass spectacles or garlands, or I could make Swallows’ nests out of the sand.
‘You are not using enough water,’ a polite voice piped over my shoulder. My shallows’ nest wasn’t much to look at. The best nest maker was the lame Chettri’s elder son who was swept away by the river the year before. No one could match the temples and villages he made on the banks of the river. But mine was not much to look at. I looked over my shoulder.
‘You are not using enough water. Don’t scoop the sand out of the river. Dig into the sand till you find water, and use the sand there.’
‘Why?’ The boy was hardly bigger than me, but certainly older. His frame was bonier than mine, and I am no plump kid either. He smiled fondly at the disgrace I had constructed and kneeled down beside my village. ‘The sand on the surface is coarser than the sand below. It doesn’t hold enough water, and it can’t hold the sand drops. My cousin from Gorkha taught me that.’
I thought Daraundi was the biggest river in Gorkha, and it is a puny stream compared to the mighty Marshyangdi. I wondered if I could believe this boy. He dug into the sand and scooped up a handful of wet dripping sand. He dropped the sand drops into a circle– large drops over larger drops and made the base of the nest. ‘Now you should be patient. A nest takes much time. If you want to make a complete village with tunnels and temples, it takes the whole day. You can make a nice little nest in an hour. Where are you from?’
‘I’ve never seen you here before,’ I told him, effectively turning his question back at him. My grandmother says I have a gift for that. ‘It will make you a shrewd man someday,’ she says, ‘and a big man. You must be shrewd to be a big man.’ The boy smiled at me again. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am from Banauti,’ he pointed uphill towards Mankamana. ‘I am not actually from Banauti, but I am living there now. I sell sticks and my grandaunt sells curd by the large mango tree. Have you ever been to Mankamana?’
‘No. But my mother did, last Mangsir. And the Magars, our neighbours, have a daughter there. You can see her house in the nights.’
‘You cannot see Mankamana in the nights!’ he found me incredulous. But I was in no mood to stress it upon him. ‘Well, you can too! Her home is right by the temple and when they light up the lamps in the evenings you can see the light.’
‘So it is the light you can see, not her house?’ He had a strange way of talking about things. I wondered what the man who dragged the boy out would say about him. ‘Why do you sell sticks?’ I asked. ‘My mother goes to the forest to gather sticks, but we burn them as firewood. Nobody buys sticks unless you make them into a big bundle.’
He laughed, pointing at the fat Newar women scared at the middle of the suspension bridge over Marshyangdi, trying not to look down. ‘I sell walking sticks to them. They have never seen such a steep climb, and they can’t half climb to Banauti, and Mankamana is a very long way up. I haven’t been to Mankamana myself, but I know it is a very long way up. So they buy my walking sticks, and my grandmother sells sweetened curd. But sugar is getting expensive, and the others already have a lot of money but we don’t. So my grandaunt says we will try to sell curd without any sugar in it.’
He had made a beautifully raised nest, a perfect circle, not thicker than a finger and my fingers are very slender too. He stooped over his work, breathing soft and biting the tip of his tongue. The nest rose with each drop of wet sand. ‘Is this a swallow’s nest, or did you intend to make a temple?’
I did not care either way. It was no longer my temple– it was his, and he could very well make what he chose to. He concentrated on the nest again, carefully dripping the drops of sand that fell as grey rough pearls and adhered to make a beautiful swallow’s nest. Daraundi hasn’t any thorn berry bush this side of the river, and I couldn’t swim to the other side. I climbed up the large stone and took off my clothes to bask in the sun and feel the warm, smooth stone on my skin. If I could keep my posture, if I did not roll off the river, I could perhaps sleep in the sun. The sun was warm and mellow and soporific in its hazy way.
‘Whoa!’ someone shouted into my ear and I was jerked out of my reverie. Pushpa, my friend from school, who had introduced me to the delicious Momos at Samjhana Momo Restaurant & Bar, even though I was a Bahun’s child, sat grinning with his rows of teeth, blocking my sun. ‘You’re blocking my sun!’ I said.
‘Aren’t you going to swim?’ he asked. I shook my head in a no. ‘You didn’t see the skull, did you?’ he asked with a mischievous grin. I shook my head again, ‘I fell asleep.’ Pushpa sat beside me and threw pebbles into the river. He had brought a handful and gave me a few. I threw stones into the river with him. An older boy jumped out of the river, directly beneath our rock, and shouted at us, holding his forehead. Pushpa scrambled out to find cover, in case the boy decided to pelt us back. I stayed on, calm and disinterested. Pushpa had established himself as a felon by running away, so I had nothing to fear. The older boy dived in again and surfaced with a stone, which barely missed my shin. I scrambled out of his reach too, joining Pushpa behind the rock.
‘Who is that?’ I asked him. ‘I don’t know. Never seen him before!’ he said. He looked at me and magically procured a bidi and a matchbox, and grinned his grin again, with all teeth. I wasn’t sure if I should grin too, because then I would have to smoke along with him. It wouldn’t do good to mention to him that we were still children. Only grown-ups are allowed to say that to us– not ourselves! Pushpa lighted the bidi and drew in the smoke, making a big balloon of his mouth. He kept the smoke in his mouth for a while and blew it out, his face screwed in distaste, and further contorted by the feigned liking for the smoky flavour in his mouth. ‘Here!’ he said, handing the bidi to me.
I was determined to outdo him. He hadn’t drawn it into his lungs, but I would. Just to show him the proper way men did it. I took a deep drag. The smoke burnt my throat and brought convulsions in my lungs. I tried to contain the fume longer, but it worked its way out in bursts. My head reeled, and I drooled all over myself. ‘Here!’ I said in a feeble voice and handed the bidi to Pushpa. He made another balloon of his cheeks and handed it back to me. I decided to make a balloon myself, and save myself the humiliation– my head was reeling and I was nauseous. There was a sudden burst of screams from the river. We couldn’t decide if a skull had been surfaced, or if someone was being swept away. Both would be equally exciting unless the older boy tried to pelt us again.
A boy was bobbing in the mid-current, flaying his arms about, bouncing off the rocks. He submerged, surfaced and submerged again. It was the boy from Banauti. The water was cold, and that would knock the wind out of his lungs. He would gasp for breath, not realizing that he was a foot in the water, and draw gasps of cold water into his lungs. His strength would wane, and his limbs wouldn’t flay anymore. He would perhaps knock into a rock that would knock his eyes out, like the dead kid’s. Perhaps an hour downstream, where the river would widen again near a village, another boy would see his frail figure riding the current and shout out to an older man for help…
‘Help! Help!’ shouted Pushpa, and was into the water before I could shout to him to stop. The older boys who were watching shouted at Pushpa and called him a suicidal fool, and a couple of older boys jumped in. I ran downstream along the banks. Perhaps a sudden wave or a ploy of the cruel currents would throw him towards the sandy bank and I could jump in to reach out to him. Perhaps he would be thrown close enough, on a shallow stretch. Perhaps the current would pin him against a rock, and I would shout to him from the banks to hold on and gave courage, and not look around and to allay his fear because the older boys are coming, bobbing on the foamy crests of the current like paper dolls. I ran along the long arc of the clear sandy bank, my legs aching of the effort, but my spirit and body oblivious of the toil in the excitement of the moment. The sandy curve was abruptly swallowed by a face of rocks that extended its jagged shoulder out and into the river. I had to climb over the jagged edge to the other side, cautious of my naked shins upon the jagged edge of the shoulder. The bank continued as a rocky banks cape. The boy from Banauti disappeared downstream, and Pushpa alighted on the bank, by the jagged shoulder, gasping because of the cold and the strength of the current that dashed him and his heroic effort against the huge rocks that studded the course of the river. The other boys alighted along the bank further down. The chase for life was over just as abruptly as it had begun. In any case, no one among the swimmers, or for that, the silly old cowherds in their early sixties, knew who the drowned boy was. The stunned crowd made sympathetic guttural sounds and shook their heads sadly. The gallant cowards who ran along the bank to challenge the swift Marshyangdi currents spat about and threw stones into the face of the stone shoulder. The black shiny resolute face of the shoulder broke our sandstone pebbles asunder, and sprayed the sands and the shallow water with sandstone shrapnel. Those silently treading water in the calm shallow stretch slowly crawled out of the water and stood along the bank, uncertain, dripping, afraid, remorseful.
‘I am going home,’ I sighed, looking at Pushpa. Two dead boys had drained me of my spirit. I wasn’t sure if I knew the boy from Banauti well enough to mourn for him, but I felt a heavy burden on my chest. It took me an effort to sigh, to look away at the sad old cows, haggled and scarred by the abusive old cowherd’s cane. ‘I am going home,’ I repeated, asking Pushpa with my eyes if he would come along. He did not look interested, and kept gazing after the lost boy, his gaze penetrating the hill that pushed the river southwards and forced the course to arc around the hill. Perhaps he still saw the boy, now bobbing up to shout a feeble appeal, now swallowed by the cold foaming flow.
He would have lived to be a great nest builder… perhaps greater even than the Chhetri’s dead boy. But perhaps the river had a particular appetite for the keepers of those skilful fingers who created ephemeral epithets of their passion with succulent drops of sand alongside the obstinate, raging flow. Perhaps my boy, whose pink eye-socket was an impressive statement of his situation, was a similarly skilled artisan. Perhaps his fingers too had scooped out wet sand and dutifully monitored his work with the eye that had been in the socket with its pair. The Gangaji that washed our sins! What sin could the boy from Banauti possibly have done? It was his grandmother that sold curd, without sugar.
Pushpa stayed on. He had plenty to tell to the curious passerby. After all, he was heroic, although mildly idiotic, the boy who had jumped into the current first. No one had had the sense to monitor his intents once in the bosom of the icy torrent. If people would ask, he would sadly shake his head in sympathy and agony of failure, dramatized as would fit the occasion. He would come to the school with well-oiled and brushed hair, a neat parting on the left side, and a melancholy air about his grave frame, staring dramatically at the distant clouds and spitting with contempt every now and then. The boys would crowd around him, with their sharpened gaze of inquiry and admiration, and squat on the ground while he stood against the wall, his left foot bent at the knee and propped against the wall, his right hand in the pocket and the left occasionally helping the punctuated dance of his vocabulary, dishing out in a sombre, wise tone of a sage who had seen it all, the account of a stranger swept away. His left hand would dance in a delicate show of disdain; left because that was Amitabh Bachhan’s hand.
I was tired. I wished to the setting sun that no one would know of my presence at the confluence at the time of the incident. I was probably the only boy he had talked to at the confluence. The Marshyangdi looked evil to me. I cared little about the sand in the pocket of my shorts and behind the knees and in my toes. I wondered how I would be able to look into the mirror and check my face for a scar, a smile, and two eyes. The sun was dying, its death hastened by the easterly that pushed a veil of thin clouds over its reddening face. The sun sent feeble orange limbs from behind the curtain, and the limbs stretched out far into the bosom of highflying clouds in the east. The arms would disappear any moment now, in the dark blue depth of the sea that had no shore for a Pushpa to alight to, or another me to gaze after the disappearing limb.
I hadn’t eaten since the morning, and I had no appetite at all.