Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bapo Kale's House

         At three o'clock in the afternoon, the cock that lived at Bapo Kale's house stood on the mud wall of the compound and decided to crow. He had barely thrown his head back and opened his beak when a shriek filled the air, as untimely as the crowing of Bapo Kale's cock and a thousand times shriller. The sound rose to a high pitch and stayed there as though all the women of Mauxi had decided to scream till Shiva himself came down.
         Bhagi Kale peeped through the bars of her window and then shook Bapo by the shoulder.
         'A bus is coming. And a jeep. And a car! Wake up!'
         Bapo wiped the dribble from the corners of his mouth and sat up. A bus and a jeep? In this part of Mauxi and at this time of day? The sound of women and children running came closer. Before long, there was a knock.
         'Come out of the house and get into the bus!' someone shouted.
         'What?' Bapo shouted back, straining to hear above the sound of the wailing siren.
         'This is a drill to remove all the villagers of Mauxi in case of trouble!'
         'Trouble? What trouble?' asked Bapo, cautiously opening the door as Bhagi hovered near his elbow.
         'This is just a practice drill, if the factory has an accident … Bapo Kale … Bhagi Kale … just two of you, aanh?' asked the short pot-bellied man at the door with a file and clipboard in hand.
         'Baie gou, it's happened, it's happened,' whispered Bhagi in sudden panic. 'The gas from the factory will kill us. Close the door, close the door, the gas will come in!'
         'Quiet!' Bapo hushed her and turned to the man with the file. 'Tell me properly … accident has happened or not happened?'
         'No no!' the official shook his head. 'Nothing has happened.'
         'Then why you want us to get in the bus?'
         'You have to. It is a government order. Everyone in Mauxi has to get in those buses and leave the village within twenty minutes.'
         'What!' The hair in Bapo's nostrils bristled and his eyes burned with anger. 'Who are you to tell me to get out of my house and my village? Is this your father's house? Is this the bastard government's house? I am not going anywhere!'
         By this time another man with a larger pot belly and an even larger file had come up to the door.
         'What happened, what is the matter?' asked the second man.
         'He's not moving out.'
         'Ye, Bappa, you have to get out. Just for a few hours. This is for your own good, understand?'
         'Few hours? You want to take our house, don't you?'
         'No, no … arre, who wants your house?!'
         'You want us to get out so that you can take our house and our land. I know you fellows very well.'
         'Enough, enough, old man,' said the second officer, as he brusquely shoved open the door and caught Bapo's shrivelled hand.
         'Yehh, chedechya, don't touch me,' shouted Bapo in rage as he pulled away. 'I'll cut off your balls and give you in your hand!' He quickly retreated into the darkness of the two-room house and emerged after a few moments, holding a crude country-made gun. Its barrel, generally aimed at wild pigs on Bapo's hunts, now stared down the two bewildered officials.
         'Get out! Get out!' Bapo yelled, shaking the barrel up and down. The two men ran out of the door and out of the compound, dropping their files as they ran, just before a blast from Bapo's shotgun sprayed pellets over their heads.

         Bapo went out to pick up the fallen files and returned to the house.
         'Well done,' said Bhagi. 'They deserved it – thieves!'
         Bapo opened a file and held it close to his nose. 'Can you read this, Bhagi?'
         'Yeh, Bappa, since when I can read, aanh?' laughed Bhagi, showing crumbling, paan-stained teeth.
         'I think they are names of all our people. See this, Bomo, Chimno, Navlo … Gangi …'
         'Don't take that Gangi's name. Halkatt! Enough that you had a good time with her,' fretted Bhagi.
         Bapo put the file down and pretended to fiddle with his gun. He turned his face away so that Bhagi could not see the wry smile that cracked his parched and shrunken face as his mind raced back many years.
         Outside the window, the sound of buses faded into the evening, and suddenly Mauxi seemed very quiet.
         'Why didn't Dhulo Kharwat tell us about all this?' asked Bhagi pensively.
         'Chehh, Dhulo is a bastard – he will sell his own wife if he gets a good rate. Didn't he sell Navlo's and Sakri's land to the factory-wallas? See how he built a big house after becoming panch? Was he not a cashew worker like us? Can we build even a toilet with our money today from making brooms?'
         After a pause, he continued, 'But leave all that. This is honest money, Bhagi, money earned from our hands. That is enough for us.'

         After a half-hour, the ominous sound of a jeep tore through the dusk, and this time two police constables knocked roughly on Bapo's door.
         'Chedyekastache have come back. They will get nothing, nothing from me.' To bang hard on Bapo Kale's door was to bang on Bapo's heart itself, a terrible insult to him. He sat still for a while, speechless with growing rage.
         As the knocking turned to violent hammering, Bapo moved the bed from the corner of the room. Digging briskly at the mud floor, he soon hefted out a small metal box from its hiding place. For a moment he gazed at the faded lettering on its cover – British Dynamite Co, Limited – and then gingerly opened it. He drew out one of the smaller sticks from within and walked to the window. There he struck a match and lit the fuse. Then, in a swift though rusty movement, he opened the window and flung the stick out onto the road with all his strength.
         But nothing happened. The only explosive sounds were those of the police at his door.
         'Open up or we are breaking the door!'
         'Zakmarnabaiegouhainsaggleanche!' muttered Bapo as he grabbed his gun and clambered up the ladder to the wooden attic over the main room. He loaded another shot and stuck his barrel into a gap between the bars of a small window that overlooked the compound.
         'Chedecheanno, I fought the Portuguese under Sinari and Krishnarao Ranno, okay? You bastards can pluck my pubic hair! Get away from my door!'
         Bamm! Another volley of shot peppered the mud plaster of Bapo Kale's compound. The constables clutched the walls in terror and slowly edged away to the corner of the house, from where they fled to their jeep. They thanked their stars when the engine started on the first try, and they drove out of Mauxi in a hurry. Once out of the village they slowed down, but continued cursing their superiors and casting vehement doubts on the legitimacy of their children.

         A deathly quiet descended on the houses of Mauxi, broken only by foxes howling in the dusk. Bapo got to work. He hammered some planks across the three windows of the house and across the door, too. At eight o'clock the power went out, plunging the desolate village into absolute darkness. Bhagi groped around the room a bit and soon, like a practised bat in its cave, found the Petromax. She lit it and started making fresh chapattis.
         'Bappa, they might come through the roof tiles. What we will do then?'
         'Don't worry. I will sit with my gun and shoot them in the arse,' assured a sweating Bapo, as he cleaned his weapon.
         'I have chilli powder to throw in their eyes,' offered Bhagi as she warmed the afternoon's daal.
         'Those sticks have gone damp. Otherwise those fellows would have gotten a good lesson,' mused Bapo, blowing into the barrel of his gun. 'They were the last stock from our attack on the Surla mine – 1955, I think, but can't remember very well now.'
         'Keep them in the sun,' advised Bhagi.
         'Yes, yes, keep them in the sun. Everything, keep in the sun. I will keep my balls in the sun, to warm them for you,' teased Bapo.
         Bhagi's furrowed cheeks crinkled as she broke into a toothless grin.
         'You remember last year Tuko had come from Sanguem?' Bapo turned serious. 'They told everyone in his village to go to some new houses, and then the river came all over the old houses – finished! All their grandfathers' houses gone, sleeping under the water. Tuko had gone diving near the dam and he says all the houses are as they are, even the coconut trees.'
         Bhagi lay down on the bed, exhausted from the travails of the day. Bapo sat by her side, keeping an eye on the roof tiles with his gun at easy reach. In the dim light of the kerosene lamp, he watched a solitary kattmui ant make its way from a hole in the mud floor to another in the wall.
         'Ye, Bhagi, we have to put a new coat of cow dung on the floor, aanh,' he said to his wife. But Bhagi was asleep.
         'But don't go out tomorrow,' he continued nevertheless. 'They may take you. We'll do it after two days.'
         Bhagi murmured in her sleep, but she was dreaming of paddy growing in the fields deep under water, with fish swimming over blades of rice, their scales flashing now and then in the green sunlight.
         His father had built this mud house. He remembered stomping in the wet mud along with his father and the other men, getting the clayey mix ready to cast into the waiting wooden forms. He had been a boy then, but that smell of wet earth and his father's sweat had soaked into his memory, and now he had to only touch and breathe close to the walls of the house to smell his father again.
         Over the years Bapo had kept the house in good repair, plastering it with a fresh coat of mud after the rains, mixing a few bitter leaves into the mud as his father had taught him, to keep the termites away.
         In the coop on the other side of the wall, a hen clucked loudly in her dreams. Soon after that the cock clucked back in the darkness, as though telling her to shut up. Bapo fell asleep.

         He woke as a beam of sunlight peeped through the roof tiles and warmed his cheek. The sound of footsteps walking past his house roused him further. Still holding his gun, he walked slowly to the window, now bent over with the ache of sitting up against the wall all night.
         He peeped through the boarded window, and a tired smile cracked his lips. He came back and sat on the edge of the bed. Shaking his sleeping wife gently by the shoulder he said – 'I saw Chimno and Sakri. And Janu and her children. They have come back. They are all coming back.'
         His wife stirred and muttered in her sleep.
         'Wake up, Bhagi. We won, Bhagi, we won!' 


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