The Tea Shop by Prawin Adhikari on Lukamari.com.

A story by Prawin Adhikari.

First published on Kurakani.com in October 2002 (Now, Nepal123.com)

The tea scalded his palate. Rafiq ran his tongue over the damage and felt the soft tissue scrape off on the tip of his tongue. He did not have the confidence to take an immediate sip. The cup warmed his chilled hands, but the tea was too hot for him to keep the cup in his palms too long in comfort. Rafiq put down the cup cautiously on the uneven log table. The mist was still below them and the rays of the sun still a gold fringe on the hilltop above the teashop.

An irregular gash of a trail rushed down the bare red slippery face of the hill. The valley Rafiq had travelled the day before lay hidden in the mist that floated like a light fleece over the paddy fields and the gentle brook that hurried to the great roaring river just beyond the southern mountains. He remembered the river well. The warm caress of the sun will soon travel downhill, thought Rafiq, dancing atop the dew washed Sal leaves. Soon the monkeys will awaken the forest with their excited chatter, responding to the delight of the warm morning sun. The mist was fast rising uphill in a swirling dance, agitated by the sun rushing down to meet it. The shopkeeper busied herself with the fire in the hearth, watching out of the corner of her eyes her boy of six rubbing his eyes awake to the grandeur of the beautiful morning. The mist swirled up to engulf the teashop. The sun went hazy, peering at the thatch of the hut through a thick veil. The little boy was delighted and jumped about excitedly. He spread his arms like a bird and swooned about in the mist. Rafiq took another sip of the tea, quite forgetting the hazard it accorded him and smarted his lips this around. The little boy’s antiques were a delight, however, and brought a warm smile on Rafiq’s face.

‘He is a devil!’ said the mother, poking about the stale bun on the embers. ‘Oh!’ said Rafiq; ‘he is just a child!’ ‘No, no!’ said the mother with a fond light of affection in her eyes for her little devil, ‘he is such a devil! Really! He would have turned out a fine disciplined boy if he had someone around to twist his ears now and then… But he is my only child and he is so spoilt!’ She waited for Rafiq to ask her of the boy’s father– she could then furbish the story of her ill fate and perhaps gather sympathy for a lonely woman. Rafiq peered into the mist for the swooning little devil that was such a delight to watch, in complete oblivion of the mother’s remarks. The mist had thickened. The sun would soon clear it up and show the blue endless expanse above the hill and the green expanse of the paddy fields about the brook in the valley below. The mother and Rafiq looked into the mist for the little boy, expecting him to suddenly jump into view with his bird-cry, or perhaps even as a wounded aeroplane. The mother jumped with a start to see the bun burnt on the hot embers and hurriedly passed the hot bun into Rafiq’s hands. Rafiq played the bun about, too hot to handle, and placed it over the cup, plugging the aromatic vapour. The mist cleared out suddenly and the sun shone clear and strong. The child was nowhere in sight. The mother shook her head in an exaggerated exasperation and let out a sigh. Rafiq played with the bun, charred and spoilt, and looked down at the paddy fields in the distance. The morning sun shone on the gentle brook and made it look like a silver serpent, harsh in the glare.

‘How far are you headed?’ asked the shopkeeper. She looked at Rafiq with keen interest. ‘You have not walked this path before, have you?’ ‘No,’ said Rafiq, ‘This is the first.’ Rafiq was lost in his own thoughts. Any new face was of interest to the shopkeeper: she with her story of a long lost husband and a young son. She was not of these parts either– the red slippery hill still felt hostile to her. ‘What brings you here then?’

Rafiq was caught unaware by the question. The woman was now getting irritated with the indifference Rafiq bore towards her. What age must he be? Thirty? Thirty-five? No! He must be younger… Was there not the charm of the innocent youth in his eyes? He was unlike the other men she had seen and been abused by. He has never had a woman, she thought and was ashamed of herself. It was months since she had last seen a stranger in these parts and strangers were the only luxury allowed to her fantasy. There were no more than six adult men in the village behind the shoulder of the hill above her. They were crude men, or else feeble with old age. ‘What brings you here?’ She wondered if she was talking too much and putting the stranger at ill-ease.

‘I have a friend in the village above. The Jimmwal’s son.’

‘Who? Dile? He is not in the village… He left after his wife eloped with his…’ she hesitated. Dile’s wife had eloped with a friend of her husband– a man from the city. There had been a rumour rife that Dile’s wife had been taken away to India by the infamous friend. Some speculated that the woman had been sold. ‘And rightly as she deserved! Right under the nose of her mother in law and her poor husband! What guts the bitch had! What better fate did she deserve? A whore she was and a whore she was made!’ the elder women had cursed the young dishonest wife before the young ones gathered at the waterhole.

Rafiq looked puzzled. ‘Dile is the elder one, I guess,’ he said. ‘No, not him. His brother Hira is my friend. He is the Jimmwal’s younger one. Isn’t he?’ Rafiq knew Hira had a young wife. The talk about Dile’s wife and her lover discomforted him.

‘Hira Kaji! He is in the village alright! He got married a week ago. No. Ten days it must be now. I’m sure you knew that. Or did you come to the wedding?’ Hira Kaji had married the only daughter of the old Magar widow. Her father had been in the Indian army and was killed in action when the girl was yet in the widow’s womb. The pensions and the insurance from the army provided for the girl who was raised in relative comfort in the harsh village atmosphere. Lahurni Sainli, the girl’s mother, had taken great pains to give her daughter a fine childhood and had married her off to the wealthiest family in the village. She was the prettiest young girl in the village, loved by all because of the grave misfortunes that had befallen her early in . Hira Kaji had adored her from their childhood when they played the games of innocence in the mustard fields and the singing streams with banks of sweet clover. He had won her heart– through the strength of a friendship that had the first of its days in the vague golden haze of early childhood, and his father’s fortune. ‘It is a bit late for the wedding feasts, you know!’ the shopkeeper giggled at Rafiq.

‘He sent me a letter. I would have come to the wedding but I was caught up in business. The Sahu wouldn’t let me come.

‘You work in Kathmandu, then?’ The shopkeeper eyed him greedily. She would have liked the young man to understand the greed in her eyes or see it at the least. Would he be staying long or would he hurry back to his job? She wouldn’t mind it either way– she rather fancied life in the city. She caught herself with these thoughts again– thoughts she thought rather naughty.

‘No. Not Katmandu.’ Rafiq wished not to elaborate. His head was occupied with the thoughts of his friend and his young wife and the village. He knew with certainty that the terrain, the red slippery earth and the harsh sparse landscape that seemed hostile to greenery and grass was etched deep in his memory. A giant couple of the imposing ancient Bar and Peepul in the Chautara midway through the red hill was hauntingly familiar. He had felt the dust below his feet beckon him even as he took his first few steps uphill. Is there a dark grove of mangoes and bamboo in the shadows of the hill? Had he not played in the shadows of the red hill as a child? Why did the upright limbs of the towering Sal trees lined against the horizon come fleeting back before his closed eyes whenever he thought of a sky and a sun setting behind it? Yet this was the first time he had ever come to this village.

‘Pokhara then? But not many men go to work in Pokhara. Not from this village. It is either Kathmandu or it is India. Dile is in Arab. Or so the Jimmwal says. Poor man! You should have seen him after his wife ran away. He went about for weeks with his head hung low. For two weeks he did not show his face in the teashop. Next thing I hear he had left for the Arab. Or so the Jimmwal said.’ The woman had a fast tongue and Rafiq noticed that. The shopkeeper caught Rafiq looking at her and smiled her coy smile– the one that did not show her teeth. She had a beautiful mouth that looked prettier when she smiled with her teeth, and she knew that. She was not sure if she should smile her pretty one. The young man would certainly be around for a week. The teashop was the only place he would come to when he had to escape the monotony of the household. ‘Where do you work then?’

‘India.’ The woman’s face lit up in delight at the answer. But Rafiq was not any proud of the fact. He was not proud of the fact that he was a Hindu with a Muslim name either. He was not proud of his face that looked more aged than he actually was. He was quiet by his nature and preferred not to discuss something as vain as himself so often. But the woman had a fast and untiring tongue as women are bound to have. She frightened him with the prospect of further inquiries. Why would she be delighted to know he worked in India? He was just a stranger in the village. He would perhaps not even speak to her again. Not unless he came back to her shop.

The child had not returned. The mother was apparently not worried, so it must be a regular habit with him. Rafiq ran his hand over his . When a mother is not worried about her child swooning over the horizon, it means he has a secure childhood and a bunch of friends waiting for him. The child must be running through the cornfields, his arms still outstretched and a hum singing through his nose. Chasing the dragonflies perhaps, Rafiq thought fondly. His was thinning about the crown. Deep furrows etched themselves on his face whenever he smiled or frowned, imparting an exaggerated impression of maturity that he did not really possess. Harsh conditions at the job had aged him sooner than he deserved. He was a man and yet had not tasted manhood. Rafiq longed a home, now that Baba Miyan had passed away and he was left with no hearth waiting for him. He remembered how the old man had told him stories– of the hills and the ancient Persia alike and lulled him to sleep in the hot evenings. Hatim Tai, Alladin and the lamp, the Sunkeshri Maiya, the manifold characters of Mahabharat and the Ramayana– the stories were alive in Rafiq’s memory, told in the gentle drawl of the old Miyan imposing voice. Rafiq longed to tell the same stories to his own child. There was a discontinuity in his childhood– between the dragonflies, he had chased in the obscure red dust and the thorn-berries he had picked along the great river. He had a scar on his forehead that his Baba Miyan did not remember. The scar and the red dust that felt to him like a mother’s caress constantly hung on his consciousness and tortured him with the suggestion of a lost childhood. A childhood without the adorable Baba Miyan and his stories. Thinking of the child had brought torrents of memory to his mind that escaped no opportunity to torture him. They would sooner bring tears to his eyes, Rafiq thought.

‘Such a devil!’ sighed the woman again. ‘The paths must be slippery with the dew and the devil has run away to god knows where! He plays such pranks on his aunt and me. The other day he filled the water-pot with tadpoles from the cattle-pond. Tadpoles… ha ha ha!’ she laughed freely, throwing back her head and spilling the tight bun of her dark hair which came tumbling down her shoulders. Rafiq looked at her. She was beautiful after all. Women are bound to have a fast tongue, but they had beauty too. He could not recall the name of the girl Hira Kaji had said would be waiting for him. Of course, she wouldn’t be waiting for him; he would have to win her heart. Rafiq smiled at himself. The steam had softened the bun that plugged the cup. He tried to pick at it with his fingers, sending the burnt bun down into the cup of tea. The woman laughed and brought him a spoon to scoop out the soggy bread. Rafiq nodded his gratitude. The woman stood beside him, the smell of her body touching him. Her hair was still about her, playing with the . Rafiq looked down at his cup of bread and continued to scoop his food. The cool morning air floated from the valley below and played on his back. There isn’t another soul in sight, thought the woman as she watched the thinning hair on the man’s crown. Why was she so shameless today? But what had she to herself against? Was she not a lonely woman deprived of a man’s love?

The teashop was located ideally on the hill. A pedestrian walking the slippery steps uphill from the valley below found no refuge from the sun or his thirst till he reached the teashop. The terrain was sparse and cruel to a newcomer. It was good that the shop came before the Chautara, for the dense paternal shade of the Bar and the sweet cool fountain beside it would have rendered the purpose of the teashop futile. That was of little consequence yet to the shopkeeper– she rarely had strangers come that way. It was the petty needs of the villagers, along with the occasional traveller like the man before her that provided her with her meagre livelihood. It was not always that someone sat down for anything more than a cup of tea. Even a burnt stale bun.

She looked at the young man and caught him looking at her. The wind still played with her dark hair, much as her son did, and caressed her face and her mouth with its sublime fingers. The young man was not familiar with women: that she could tell. He had been brought up well, though he looked poor and under-provided. But of course. Why else would he work in India– a land she knew to be hot and harsh to its workers. A worker lived in a dark and grim life in India. That had taken the eagerness off his youth, she concluded. He had a beautiful mouth that had not yet smiled at her though he smiled often at the sun and the wind and the chimes of the iron bells around the grazing cattle somewhere out of the sight. ‘Would you like some more tea?’ she asked. ‘I spoilt your bun and your tea too…’

‘Oh! Thank you! But no. I am full.’ Rafiq could sense that her hospitality now suggested a touch of interest in him. She was a beautiful woman and he had never had any beautiful stranger talk to him with compassion. Not that he objected to it– just that he did not want to get into a habit. His friend had assured him that the village would give him a loving woman if he could show the guts to take her. It was typical of Hira Kaji to talk thus. Women were for him to be taken. Hira was a known womanizer beyond the limits of his village. His ability to keep his alliances with the numerous women in the neighbouring villages a secret intrigued Rafiq. Hira Kaji, unlike Rafiq himself, was built youthful and beautiful. The Jimmwal’s son had no burden on his head that shamed him or worked his shoulders into a submissive stance. He had never known penury as Rafiq had. Life, to Hira Kaji, was an enjoyable gamble he never lost, while Life had always been a severe blow on the injured dilapidated crown of Rafiq. Hira knew all about women from his numerous exploits in the infamous quarters of Bombay where he squandered the week’s earnings during their stay together. Hira could afford to get into a habit of appreciating a woman’s presence and attention, thought Rafiq, but the same is not my fortune.

Should he proceed to Hira’s home or should he wait for his friend? It had been decided a week before at Rafiq’s village that Hira would meet Rafiq at the teashop. The woman certainly knew the way to Hira’s home, but should he ask her to guide him? The house must be in a distance– scattered as the houses were in the village. A village built upon such unyielding red clay would be sparser than other villages. ‘How far is Hira’s home?’ The question escaped him without the intent.

‘Not far. It is just beyond that big Jamun tree. It is the largest house in the village– it has a stone roof. The Jimmwal is the richest man in the village. In the old days, they say he had more land than all the oxen in the village could plough in a week! But his daughter in law disgraced the poor old man. And Dile! Just think of the heartbreak it must have caused him!’ Rafiq was satisfied. The woman wouldn’t be required to accompany him. She would not have gone with him either, he thought. He could get up and walk towards Hira’s house after paying the woman for the tea and the burnt bun but he wished not to. The woman and her hair that played in the wind were enchanting. A woman all by herself in a teashop in a village that has barely ten households. A beautiful woman who apparently had no man around her. Rafiq looked down at the valley and smiled. If the girl Hira has for me isn’t as pretty as the woman here, he thought, I can still stay behind to court this woman and her hair. Let Hira come to fetch me. I am not leaving yet. Perhaps I can even manage a conversation with her. Rafiq smiled again. He had already started courting this woman, although he was shy of himself to admit that.

The shopkeeper looked away just in time to avoid the smiling stranger’s gaze. He smiled more often to himself than he smiled at her. He could walk off any moment now after paying her to leave her alone with the bright glare of the green paddy fields in the valley below and the clouds that slowly climbed over the southern mountains, spilling down the dark side. The solitude and the monkeys around the teashop brought her to a boil so often in the hot afternoons when there was no living soul in sight for hours at stretch. She had been brought up in a town in the Terai where humanity flowed thick, brushing against each other’s flesh, making lewd signs across the shadows of the late afternoon. It was not often that a lonely polite stranger came this way– rarely the one with a job in India and certainly no woman around. It was very rarely that a stranger came with an assured stay of at least a week in the village. This she was certain. The Jimmwal’s son did not have too many friends coming over from the city or India. ‘How long will you be around?’

‘A week. Two perhaps,’ the stranger answered, looking at her all the while. He was not shying away from his gaze any more, but looking full in her face. “Your little devil has been gone a long time now!’

‘He has friends in the village. The Jimmwal’s nephew. He can show you the way when he returns. They are a bunch of junglee devils! Him and his friends!’ Could she ask him his name? It was strange he had not called him by any customary salutations… would he call her a Didi or a Bahini? She was certainly older than he was! She blushed again. It is certainly the sun, she thought and looking at the monkeys all day long. Or was it the summer air? Sweet and warm, rich with the fragrance of the tilled earth and the numerous flowers in the forest below.

A sigh filled the air. They both turned towards the path that disappeared down the side of the hill just beyond the teashop. Someone was approaching. The two were not alone anymore, and it discomforted the shopkeeper. A hand, old dark and shrivelled with age, pushed a walking stick a step closer to the teashop. An old man thought the woman. Who had walked down to the market? Not the – he was too old even for that. And he would have rasped and coughed under the strain of the climb and his age-old . A traveller perhaps? The shopkeeper put the kettle back on the fire. No traveller would pass without a warm cup of tea. Or cold water she couldn’t charge for.

An old man with a harassed face and battered stance stood before the teashop looking down at the path he had covered. He was well dressed for a village elder. A satchel across his shoulders and a small bag in his hands he was soaked in the sweat of the uphill effort. He faced away from the sun and with closed eyes tried to find the current of air rising from the valley, letting it dry his garments and at once cool him. He made a striking sight– leaning against the sky, upon his staff the fatigue of his age and the halo of pain and wisdom he bore. His face was painted with exhaustion that had its source in more than the tired limbs and a sore foot. He opened his eyes, pointed his staff at something in the valley below, and shook his head. Rafiq wondered what the old man thought of– how far he had walked? What zeal and ease he had walked the same paths in his golden days of youth? The elder faced the teashop and shook his head again as if acknowledging the existence of this paltry hut with its meager show of teakettle and a few stale buns and colourful little packets of cheap candy and one-rupee biscuits.

‘It must have been a hard walk uphill!’ commented the woman. ‘Yes!’ rasped the old man; ‘I never liked walking on red clay!’ He walked towards the log tables and sat down on the bamboo bench. ‘Would you have some water, Nani? For my foot. And make me a cup of tea.’ He took his shoes off and with a twig proceeded to remove the sticky from the soles. After scrutinizing his work and taking satisfaction in it that is essential to remind people of his kind of their efficiency he propped up his left foot and inspected the sore the new pair of shoes had given him. It looked bad, opened up by a fault in the shoe. It is difficult to have a sore heal in such an old limb, he thought, and so far away from any civilized medicine. He picked the guilty shoe and peered inside at the piece of paper he had placed in the morning before the walk. It was mutilated, abused by the friction between his foot and the shoe, and soaked in the water of the broken boil. ‘Your tea…’ the woman put the cup of warm tea before him. ‘Where can I wash my hand, Nani?’ The woman brought a plastic mug of cold water and poured it for him. The elder washed his foot, flinching at the pain as the water washed his boil, and then washed his hand.

Rafiq sat watching the old man. He was watching the woman by him but he was too shy a person to acknowledge that. As the morning sun climbed higher and bore down with a cruel severity upon the thatch, the two men destiny had thrown together after almost twenty-eight years sat oblivious of each other. The elder who had just climbed to the teashop looked at the younger man who had preceded him by a half-hour. The old man sipped his tea and Rafiq looked about at the forest around and the valley below. Both strained to catch the sound of the river flowing beyond the southern mountains: a mad song of rage and a roar of brutal majesty that was etched in each man’s mind and past. There they sat like strangers that they were, each oblivious of the role the other had played in changing the course of their lives. One strained by the guilt of his action, the other strained by the burden of a destiny bestowed upon him. One thrown about by the currents of the mad river he had mastered as a young man of strength and the other thrown at a strange bank by the river that refused to swallow him. ‘The Jimmwal… does he live?’ asked the elder breaking the silence.

‘Yes! Yes, he does. He is old now… the cold last winter gave him a strange illness. He was unconscious for three days. Dile took him to Kathmandu and kept him in a hospital for months, but the doctors there could not tell what it was. The old Jimmwal never wanted to leave the village. Said he had more faith in the old Kaviraj than in those fancy pills the doctors gave him. And surely, the Kaviraj gave him his own medicines and now the old man can walkabout. He comes down to the shop once every week and talks about his days in the army.’ Rafiq was amazed at the woman’s eagerness to tell more than asked of. All women are the same, he thought. Banu Mai, the Miyan’s wife was no different. She was the only woman closest to a mother he had had in his life. Mai could never stand the fact that Rafiq was not her child. She was always outraged whenever anyone mentioned Rafiq’s unknown parentage.

‘We all get old!’ sighed the old man looking at his tea, ‘yes we do! And you never know when Death comes with his noose and puts it around your neck. Only when it tightens and you feel the breath leave your lungs do you feel the panic. And it is too late… it is always too late to amend anything you did in the blind zeal of youth and…’ the elder looked at the young couple listening to him attentively, ‘your lust.’ The couple could not decide how to react to that word of his. ‘And the Jimmwal’s sister in law? The Widow? Does she live still?’ He asked the woman.
‘Thulaghar Bajyei?’ asked the woman. Bajyei had no big house any more– the Jimmwal had inherited it from his brother, on what legal grounds nobody knew. Her husband had been the Mukhiya of the village in the days of the Ranas. A mysterious attack had left him dead in the forest in one of his Shikars, leaving a widow and two children behind. ‘Bajyei lives alone in her house by the stream. Yes, she is alive… but just about alive. I haven’t seen her for months now myself, but my son visits her often. She is very old now… not as much because of age but more because of the loneliness and the villagers…’

‘But she lives, doesn’t she?’ The elder seemed agitated. The shopkeeper looked at the old man and wondered who he might be. The old man looked away with moist eyes. ‘Time is cruel, Nani, and so is Death. Time rushes by and does not tell you of its haste. And Death… Death simply rots you with the wait. Yes! You die waiting for Him and He will still not come. Only guilt! Guilt and more guilt!’ The old man was sobbing now, glancing at the valley and Rafiq and the shopkeeper woman in turns. He dug out a clean handkerchief and wiped his eyes and his nose. His grief infected the sunny air. It amplified the silence of the forest. Rafiq looked down, searched his pocket for a ten-rupee note and held it in his fist. If this becomes unbearable, he thought, I should pay and move off. He could not stand people crying around him for obscure notions not explained to him.

‘Why!’ exclaimed the woman, ‘you’re crying now, father!’ Her eyes reflected the moisture in the old man’s eyes. She was a softhearted woman, and the old man had endearingly called her Nani, Little Child. How old could He be? Certainly not more than sixty-five. Yet, the agony and the burden of guilt in his voice and stance made him appear older. What ate his conscience thus that it brought tears to his timid eyes? A feeble old man could not have climbed the steep hill of slippery red mud just to cry before two strangers. What woes did he hide in his frail chest? ‘Him here…’ she hesitated, uncertain as to how she ought to address the young man, ‘he is heading towards the Jimmwal’s too. If you need company… He could help you with your burden.’ She had not asked the young man if he was willing to help the old man. But who would refuse? Certainly not this amicable looking man! It would enforce her authority on him too, she thought and blushed. Rafiq, startled by the sudden errand bestowed upon him could not understand the sudden blush on her cheeks, but that certainly made her look prettier and put him to discomfort.

‘Yes!’, he blurted out, as if on a cue, ‘I am going that way.’ ‘Oh, I am not going towards the Jimmwal’s. I am not acquainted with him, you see. Nor with his sister in law the Widow. But… if you know, Nani, this widow– did she lose her child? A long time ago– say twenty-five years? I heard she did. Would you know, by any chance?’ The elder looked at the woman’s face with eager anticipation of an answer. His guilt could never be washed. It could not even be abated– a as heinous as he had committed. But the widow could certainly find a grain of justice in his apologies. He could not undo what he had done; nor could she ask back her share of life and joy that he had robbed. If she was the widow he was looking for. If he had come to the right village. If he was required to carry about this guilt at all.

‘She lives alone. I know she had two children when she was widowed, but I do not know what happened to them. I do not know her all that well, but my son does. He spends all of his playing hours there with the Jimmwal’s nephew and Ek Bahadur’s son. But he wouldn’t know of the Bajyei’s children either. Who would talk to a little devil like him about long lost children? He is just a child still!’

An uneasy silence reigned the forest. Even the monkeys seemed to have come under the burdening spell of the old man’s infectious grief. The cattle browsing out of sight must have settled for the day’s grazing. The iron bells around their neck made no sound. A young cowherd called out to another, making an obscene remark at the girls walking between them. The other made a reply that echoed through the valley below. The girls giggled and broke into a high pitched song, disguised in its obscenity but making the most of the opportunity before them. A tree silent and sullen henceforth broke into a hundred hurried wings and sweet chaos of birdcalls as birds of numerous kinds flew out, pursued by a couple of catapult pellets. One of the cowherds let out a blood-curling cry again, scaring off more birds. The trio sat listening to the sounds of the frivolous youth. The old man, immersed in guilt the other two could not understand, took out a notebook and started scribbling in it.

Rafiq understood it as the time he ought to be moving off, Hira Kaji or no Hira Kaji. He would have to introduce himself to the young wife of his friend’s. The girl Hira Kaji had told him so often about was this newlywed’s friend. It was rather curious a situation, and awkward too. He had come all the way from his workplace in India to woo a girl in his friend’s village because it was a high time he took himself a wife. Perhaps Banu Mai would have been proud of him today, he thought, now that he had finally decided to settle down. Banu Mai would have been proud of many things he had done had she lived long enough. Banu Mai would have been proud of the day he bore Baba Miyan to his grave. Banu Mai would have been proud of him if she could have seen him hold his tears back as he threw his handful of earth into her grave. Banu Mai would have been proud to see him take pride in the Mussalman name she had given him. Banu Mai certainly was proud this instance, looking down at him from her abode in the Jannat her Allah had created for her. Rafiq stood up before he would want to cry thinking of his gentle mother, and stretched over the log table to hand the money to the shopkeeper. She took the note, looking down and touching the coarse tips of his fingers with her soft warm ones. ‘Will you be back tomorrow?’ she asked. ‘This is the only teashop in the village!’ Rafiq smiled and nodded. ‘Tomorrow.’

‘It is just beyond the Jamun tree!’ called the woman after him. ‘The house with a stone roof. You will recognize it when you see it. But they have a dog. Call out for Hira’s wife– she must be home now. They have a dog! It is a big one!’ Rafiq was already halfway through to Hira’s home, and the woman was still shouting after him. He looked back from the shoulder of the hill before taking the turn downhill. The melancholy elder sat gazing at his foot. The woman stood outlined against the blue sky, hands on her hips, looking at him. He smiled at her, but he was too far already for her to know that he had smiled. He hesitated for a second, broke off a green branch and waved at her. He knew he had made a friend. A woman friend. A woman who would think of him in the evening. Perhaps he should return with Hira in the evening for his tea.

The old man still stared at his sore that would kill him eventually. The Sal leaves played to the rhythm of the forest and the breeze. The monkeys started their game chattering from the treetops, hopping the branches to fight for a chestnut fruit. The woman forgot the old man with his woes, lost in the thoughts of the young man she had certainly befriended, and started preparing the morning meal. The sun-dried up the red clay of the paths and ants hurried in and out of the cracks that appeared. The shoes would gather red dust now instead of the red mud, red dust that would cling between the toes and in the garments. The little village of ten households was busily tending to its morning meal, oblivious of the two individuals who had walked in, bringing a storm at their wake. A storm was just beyond the southern mountains, building itself into raging turbulence, rising from the roars of the river that would devastate the two men over Time. A strange show awaited the signals of an obscure master. A curtain was being raised and the last words prepared for the ruin of the little village. Little kids chasing the summer air, young girls after fodder, a young man hopeful of a successful courting, a girl coming of age and a sad lonely old widow waiting for a bizarre story from a stranger’s mouth breathed the same air, breathing into each other’s lungs the same seeds of disaster. A strange play of Destiny, the players oblivious of their lines and their parts, was shaping itself out of the red dust and the insistent red clay. In a matter of weeks, the storm would touch the life of every individual, every living soul.