When Somoni Desai felt that the heat in his lower body was getting too much, he went to Doctor Shivram. The doctor tucked up his puddvem and peered at Somoni’s tongue. He asked him to cough as he studied Somoni’s testicles and watched them rise and fall.
Then he stood him in the sunlight streaming through the window of oyster shells and stared at the floor.
‘It’s a fever,’ he said. ‘Your shadow has a fever.’
Somoni went home very saddened. As he walked home in the fading light, he did not look behind him. But before he went to bed, he looked at the dark form cast on the limewashed walls by the oil lamp and felt that his shadow did look a bit swollen.
‘Which shadow has the fever, doctor?’ he asked Doctor Shivram the next morning. ‘My day shadow or night shadow?’
Doctor Shivram peered at him angrily over the spectacles he was not wearing. ‘Do I look like the kind of doctor who examines night shadows?’ he asked in a huff. ‘Go to that Doctor Balachandravelu down the street if you want to know those things.’
Somoni walked back home in the afternoon sun, worried about his shadow. It had shrunk now and he squatted on the road for a while and touched it. It felt warm and feverish indeed. He felt a pang of shame for not having taken good care of it and vowed to make things right. He walked home slowly, his stunted shadow shuffling forlornly behind him.
‘Sit still and don’t move,’ his wife warned him before she began rubbing his shadow with warm coconut oil and neem leaves, as he sat in his verandah that late afternoon. She continued massaging it every hour as it lengthened, only ceasing when it faded away into the hazy shades of dusk. Somoni stood up, and stepping gingerly over the now slippery floor, went into his house. He bathed and then lay in bed for the rest of the day.
‘Don’t go to the shop,’ she warned him the next morning. ‘The smell of tamarind and onion will make the fever worse.’
The gaddekar came by that evening and whipped his shadow with the branches of the jagom tree. As he took a break to light his bidi, Somoni asked him – ‘This zaddnim is done mostly for mad dog bites, isn’t it?’
‘Mad dogs, snakes and shadows,’ said the gaddekar as he blew smoke into his own crotch. He was not happy with the three rupees that Somoni’s wife gave him and as he left he said – ‘That mango tree there may not bear fruit next year.’
On the fourth morning, Somoni rose to go to his shop. He gently walked his shadow behind him all the way from his house to the bazaar. He steered it clear of potholes and made it walk on the grass as far as possible. At one point he stopped to check its temperature and was pleased to see that it had cooled down.
He sat at the cracked wooden counter of his shop in the face of the morning sunshine that soon framed the faces of his regular customers. He knew his shadow was mingling with those of the dusty black cupboard and the kerosene drum and the crates of soft drink bottles that lay at the back of the shop. Somoni didn’t mind.
He even paused under a gulmohur tree on the way home to let his shadow race off and get lost in the shade of the branches, to play apa-lipa with the rays of light streaming through the leaves. When he stood up and walked back home, it obediently followed him, nipping along between and around his legs like a mischievous dog.
‘The fever is almost gone,’ said Doctor Shivram with his ear to the floor. ‘But there is still a weakness. Feed it cunji thrice a day.’
On the way home, Somoni remembered ex-Prime Minister Morarji Desai and paused to relieve himself, tracing wide arcs of urine to fully irrigate the form on the ground.
‘Why don’t you sleep on my bed at night?’ he asked his wife when she brought him his milk for the night.
She sat on the bed next to him and they stared at their shadows on the limewashed walls for a long while.
‘After Babulo…after the baby went, I cannot…’ she finally said with a crack in her voice.
Somoni saw her shadow small and forlorn on the limewashed wall and wished his shadow would reach out and comfort hers. But all four of them sat still for a silent and heavy moment until the monsoon wind blew in from Canacona in the south, up to Balli and Fatorpa and their little mud walled house and whispered softly through their window, making the flame of the oil lamp - which was made of an empty cough syrup bottle - quiver and dance.
Somoni looked at their shadows swaying to the flicker of the lamp and said – ‘See how they are dancing, Parvati!’
Parvati giggled and then blushed.
Somoni also blushed as he watched his shadow’s hand rest on her shoulder. He looked away from the wall in embarrassment as their shadows embraced and became one dark, irregular jackfruit shape.
Deep into the night the wind fell silent and the flame of the lamp stood as still and erect as a finger of Shiva, but the shadows on the wall continued to rise and fall, sometimes gently and sometimes feverishly.