by Abha Iyengar
This year, after seven years, the fields are dry once again and there is no rain. Mother does not need to tell Baabul how it will affect them, he knows. After all, he is the one who does the stocktaking, the inventory control. He knows that this year, if there is no rain, they will not have much money to go around to buy anything besides the basic food, maybe some rice gruel, maybe some onions and potatoes.
They are awaiting the monsoon. The heat is unbearable, the sun a red ball of fire that promises nothing but dry fields and baked earth, a wanting and a yearning. Baabul can feel the cracked hardness of the earth slicing through his heels. Anything will harden and stiffen when deprived, he thinks. Nature makes it so.
Mother is stiff, austere; she does not speak much and her eyes soften only sometimes, when a stray thought enters her mind or she hears an old song on the radio. But these are moments so rare that he can hardly vouch for their being true.
Maybe if father had been around, she would have been different. He remembers his father only through the photograph in the main room. That photo is of his father as a young man, at the time of marriage. Baabul has been told he was a baby when his father left home.
* * *
Seven years ago, when the rains did come, after everything had dried up and there was no promise of it, he was very young. He has a faint memory of lying in fever, and his mother, very calm, next to him. She kept chanting something. He remembers nothing else.
People tell him, especially Mishima, the old lady who sells jhalmuri and little orange sweets wrapped in transparent paper, that it was a miracle that night.
On this day, as he stands there, buying a small paper bag of jhalmuri, she begins her tale again.
“Baabul,” she says, “the clouds just opened up and poured like never before. The air spun with water, and the peacocks, you should have seen them dance.”
“Baabul,” she says, getting soaked in her narrative, “with the coming of the rains, the earth cooled, and so did your fever. We had a bounty harvest like never before.”
“Yes, Mishima, I know,” he tells her. He has heard this story so often, and since the wonder did not happen before his eyes, he is not impressed. She gives that extra twist of lemon on his jhalmuri. That twist is just what is obvious. There is something in her white blue eyes which holds him.
Her voice rasps like sandpaper against glass. “They were waiting for you.”
He stiffens. “Stick to your business,” he tells her.
“The hyenas,” she shivers, “they were pacing that night, to pick you and take you. It seems they turn humans into hyenas. They are adding to their stock. They take the dead ones. They revive the dead body by licking it, and then they nip it slowly, and then the dead body comes alive, only now it is a hyena, with marks over its body, and no longer a male or a female...”
“Stop it, stop it, what nonsense!” Baabul tries to walk away.
Her voice follows him, as shaky as his legs, “Your mother saved you.”
He begins to run. The hot, dry air licks him. He sits on the porch of his home, his head hanging between his knees, his tongue lolling out.
There are no hyenas in the village. Mishima needs to get her head examined. He is shaking, however, as he goes in.
* * *
His mother never talks about his fever or the rains that came after that. Now, when he thinks of it, he finds it strange that his mother was so possessed and calm at the time of his illness. He lay dehydrated and almost dead, but she did not sit close to him, holding her pallu to her eyes. She did not rock from side to side, crying copious tears and bewailing her fate.
When his childhood friend Rana was dying in the grips of a fever and no medicine to help him, Rana’s mother had done just that; she cried and cried, but the flood of tears did not bring her son back. He had wondered then why his mother did not give her the mantra, the same one that had brought Baabul back from the dead.
* * *
That night Baabul is unable to sleep. He tosses and turns in bed, drenched with sweat. Any sound he hears in the night makes him jump. At the break of dawn, he is out in the fields, welcoming the light as never before.
He comes back inside, and his mother calls out to him. Baabul looks at his mother as she talks to him and finds her different. His mother’s eyes are always quiet, concentrating only on the work at hand. They are usually like clear pools, steady and unwavering. He sees now that her eyes have a glazed look, she looks at him but does not really see him.
She is also standing differently; it is as if her body has become suddenly pliable, as if her back has decided it has had enough of stiffness. Her cheek looks flushed in the morning glow.
The house has almost a festive air that day. It is not big; it has one bedroom, which is really his mother’s. He sleeps in the drawing room or central space, where the kitchen is too; the bathroom is at the back and separate. It is an old-fashioned house left to them by his maternal grandparents, the home Baabul’s mother came back to when his father left.
It has been cleaned, swept, washed, and has the sparkle and luminescence of a place prepared for love or worship. Baabul has a sense of this, though he may not be able to define it. It is a sense of a place, what it begins to mean on different days. Each day the same place will have a different smell, a different feel, and this is what seeps into a person and makes him feel bright, cheerful, sad and melancholy or just spent on different days.
He knows his mother feels spent on most days; the cares and responsibilities heaped on her would make anyone so. He tries to do his bit, but he cannot do enough.
* * *
His mother tells him now, “Go, Baabul, and find some peacock feathers for me, I want them.”
“Peacock feathers? What for?” He has to know.
“For my prayers tonight,” she says. She often uses strange things for prayers; not the usual coconut and flowers for her, so he is not too surprised. But this is the first time she has asked him to fetch peacock feathers.
Baabul steps out of his home and looks around, perhaps he will be lucky and won’t have to go far to find some feathers. Finding peacock feathers is not easy, but he must try to make his mother happy.
Dusk takes its time gathering, but it comes. Baabul is returning empty-handed, and a certain sadness fills him. He wonders why his mother makes such demands on him and expects them to be fulfilled. Other ladies also offer prayers to the various gods, but he has never seen them use peacock feathers. What kind of deity is this that has to be appeased this way?
He looks down and kicks a stone, a snake slithers away. He sees two peacock feathers lying in his path. He picks them up, amazed at their blue-green and gold splendor.
His mother is calling out to him. He can sense her restlessness. His sadness and confusion is replaced with sudden anger.
He walks into the room and flings the feathers at her feet. “Here you are,” he says. He walks up to the photo of his father and dashes it to the ground. Then he stomps out of the house.
* * *
The night is hot, the windows have been opened to let the air in. Baabul is lying on his bed, he knows he cannot spend the night outside.
Thirsty, he gets up in the middle of the night. His mother’s bedroom door is shut. The smell of incense is in the air. He cannot help himself; he must know what is going on. He looks through the keyhole.
There is a peacock on her window ledge. He comes down and begins to dance. His mother is on her bed, she is looking beautiful, her eyes soft and expectant. The peacock now spreads his feathers out, revealing his splendour, which winks in the night light like gold in the sun.
Baabul’s mother gets off the bed. She has the two feathers in her hand. She waves them in the air, says something and closes her eyes. Suddenly, the peacock changes into a man, dark-skinned, with gold and blue dress of muslin. His hair falls down his back in a mass of blue and gold. He takes the two feathers from her fingers and places them on the bedside table. He walks up to Baabul’s mother. He is majestic, regal, and as he moves, a strange music springs up in the air.
They are dancing together. It is some kind of a dream sequence he is watching. He sees them together: there are no walls, no keyhole, no windows, just the sight of them dancing a slow and languorous dance.
Baabul is on his haunches, watching. He holds his head in his hands and turns away.
Outside, there is a crack of thunder. He is shaken, moved out of his reverie.
The front door is open, the wind has unlatched it. Clouds have gathered. Big fat drops fall on the ground and disappear, for the earth is hungry and parched with longing.
He looks at the distance. He sees peacocks, dancing under the moonlight. The rain falls harder, gusts of wind blow him off his feet.
“Mother?” he calls out. “Mother?”
There is no response. He looks out of the door, gusts of wind blow the cool air in. In the distance he sees shapes.
He sees the silhouette of a woman in a sari walking away with a man who has a splendid mane of peacock feathers cascading down his back. He begins to run, fast, but the vision he sees vanishes. There is nothing but the dark night, the moon, and the cry of the peacocks in the distance. The rain is falling hard.
“Mother,” he calls out, “don’t go.” He lies down in the wet mud and cries.
The wind whispers in the trees, lifts his hair and lets it fall.
Copyright © 2009 by Abha Iyengar