Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Just another Day

Sitting under what cover the overhanging roof gave, I watched as the rain lazily dripped down and splashed into puddles lining the concrete sidewalk. I pulled my legs up to my chest and sucked on the filter of my Marlboro Light. The air wasn't warm, as it should have been in the middle of July, but humid. The wetness in the air made my hair and T-shirt stick to me annoyingly.

I checked my wrist watch hanging across my skinny hand. I still had thirty minutes of my time left and I had nothing better to do than destroy my lungs and watch the rain fall. The thought of going back home early to complete my assignment made me cringe. I've never been the go-getter in the family.

With a soft smoker's cough, I flicked the butt out onto the street and pulled another from the pack lying beside me. Just as I was about to light up I saw someone familiar; my stomach clenched up and I pushed the nervousness down with the will power that always deserted me when I tried to quit smoking. I looked down at the cigarette quickly, trying to make myself look busy. Too late, she had already seen me.

She walked over to me, exhibiting as much grace as one would expect from an acrobat walking a tightrope, every step looking calculated. Before she sat down beside me on the Bench, she brushed some wet hair out of her face and smiled. I grinned uncomfortably and took a hard drag, making myself cough.

Looking at me with amusement in her eyes, she said, "Smoking is bad for your health."

"So is walking around in the rain," I wheezed out between coughs.

"Touché." The small smile on her face made me more uncomfortable than I already was.

"So what’s up?" I asked her sharply, wanting her to leave so I could go back to being calm and collected. This happened every time she was around me. I hated myself for allowing the mere presence of someone affect me in such a way.

"Nothing much," she replied nonchalantly. "Just thought I would stop by for some tea. You should try it sometime." She said pointing towards a small tea stall nearby.

"Well, actually I like coffee and with all..." My train of thought wandered off and I didn't bother trying to retrieve it. My stomach felt like it was going to implode.

"Oh." Was that disappointment? "I understand." And again?

I risked stomach implosion to look at my long time friend, to her perhaps just another acquaintance. She wasn't looking at me. She was staring at a coin lying near her right foot. It was heads-up. Good luck.

"You should put that in your shoe." My voice had changed to an almost friendly tone. When she smiled at me I looked away and took the last drag of my cigarette before flicking it as I had done its predecessor.

"It reminds me of someone else, who does that, too," she said. I could hear the smile in her voice.

I shrugged and was relieved to find that the watch on my hand was telling me I could go back home without being considered a wannabe good boy. She was startled as I collected my cigarette pack and got to my feet quickly. "I should be getting back home."

"Oh, yeah." She too stood and we stewed in awkwardness for a few moments. She suddenly squeezed my hand and said, "Well, give me a call sometime. See you later."

My mouth had gone dry at her sudden touch and I'm not entirely sure how I managed to force out a strangled okay.

"Bye, dude," she said, calling me what my pals usually called. She was gone as suddenly as she had appeared and I walked through the gallery, directly to the bathroom.

I closed the door, went to the basin and rested my head in my hands near the tap. Why was it always like this? I collected myself and splashed my face with cold water from the tap. After making a partial recovery in the bathroom, I continued to the elevator. Instead of going down I got out at the next floor and walked myself back to the gallery.

The penny that had been lying at her feet was now gone, perhaps resting happily in her shoe.

The weather was clearer now; the rain had stopped near two. I rode for ten minutes before I reached my classy apartment building on Deccan Street. I walked up the flights of starirs and down a neat and tidy living room to my shabby room. I tossed my bag on the chair, startling Alice, the lab that we had.

"Sorry Alice," I said as I flopped down on my bean bag.

Instead of her usual habit of dancing around me, she stood near the table where I had kept my cell phone.

When the canine sat near the phone and stared at me with those dog eyes, I shook my head and said, "No, I’m not calling her, Alice." The sound of her soft whining could be heard from where I sat on my bean bag. "No," I sated firmly. Knowing I was being ridiculous, I averted my graze from her only to glance back and sigh. "Fine."

Alice wagged her tail to her victory as I leaned forward and picked up my cell phone.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Going Home

His full number was 15835 and he (or she, or it) was just an army mule. But 835 had more service and had seen more campaigns than all the other mules in his company, and certainly more than a lot of the men who for the most part were youngsters. Except, of course, his own driver, Kali charan, who had led 835 through the streaming fever jungles of Mizoram and along the treacherous snow precipices to Drass in Kashmir. 835 and kali were inseparable comrades and during the daily grooming, they had held long and quite intelligent conversations which none of the other mule driver thought strange. I do not think it strange either, for too often do the army folks owe their lives to the intelligent mules and their gallant drivers to harbour anything but the loftiest opinions of them.

835, along with five other mules formed the animal transport section attached to the remote station, where my dad was posted, and often provided us with welcome diversion when they broke loose from the picket ropes, careened madly around the perimeter like a circus team. While sweating, blaspheming soldiers tried to round them up. It was all just a game, with the mules whining excitedly and kicking their hind legs high, like equine ballerinas, as they cunningly dodged their caretakers.

At other times they stood patiently in the picket lines in the rain and bitter cold. To shivering sentries in the lonely watches of the night their soft nickering and occasional stamping were comforting sounds. At time the mules fought amongst themselves, squealing and biting until a soothing word or a burst of abuse from the driver on duty quieted them like reproved children. Ah yes, they were very human indeed. No wonder their drivers grew to love them like their own children.

One day, orders came transferring kali charan to the pension establishment as he had completed his service in the Indian army. He spent most of his that week grooming 835 unnecessarily whilst they reminisced for the last time over the many hardships they had shared together. He volunteered for the extra ration duties for that week, so that he could make the long trip to the brigade headquarters and back with 835. And when he said goodbye to us and went down the trail, Bansi ram, his good friend went with him; and old 835 carried kali charan's bedding roll and kitbag for the last time. A week later we were shocked to hear the tragic news of kali charan's death. The 'Three-Ton'(truck) carrying the leave party had fallen into ravine, killing the occupants.

One stormy night shortly afterwards, Bansi Ram woke us up with the information that one of the mules was ‘Bahut Bimar’ (very sick).

I rushed to the picket lines with Bansi Ram. He had by then rigged a tarpaulin between two trees as a rude shelter over 835 who lay panting on the wet grass, looking up with large pain stricken eyes, wrenching the heart out of us because of the helplessness. The storm had blown the telephone poles down, so a patrol was dispatched to fetch the veterinary officer. It would be four hours before they returned. All the while the rain lashed in under the tarpaulin and the dim smoky, swinging lantern danced on the glistening raincoats under which we were huddled.

'We have done all we can, Saab.' said Bansi Ram. 'It must be the colic.'

The Himalayan storm slowly but surely subsided. The Stars were fading when at last the gate sentry's challenge announced the Vet's arrival. Quickly and efficiently he set to work but it was too late. 835 suddenly quivered violently all over, raised his head in a brave effort to stand again, then lay back tiredly and moved no more.

'Dead,' announced the vet regularly, washing his hands.

'Nahin Saab,' said Bansi Ram, ‘Not dead. 835 has gone to serve with Kali.’

We all knew he was right.

And From a distant village across the border came dawn's mystic heralds of cockcrow and the high chant of the muezzin.