by Hareendran Kallinkeel
The bar is well lit.
Small neon lamps on a low ceiling reflect on wineglasses. Hidden tube lights illuminate an assortment of liquor in shining bottles in the glass shelves behind the counter. The bartender is busy serving impatient customers, who swarm the counter for a quick downing of their drinks before returning to their chores.
Cab drivers, street hawkers, coolies, laborers... For them, a drink during work is indispensable to spruce up energy, to brace for tougher times.
Those who are better off sit at the tables, leaning on comfy chairs, leisurely sipping drinks, and eating their favorite seafood, a speciality of the bar’s restaurant.
Vijay inhales the steam wafting from a plate of roasted crab a bearer places on his table. He breathes in a lungful of fragrance, fried garlic and ginger lacing the delicious aroma of crabmeat.
He bites on a pincer. The shell breaks with a crack and he tastes the exquisiteness of the flesh with the flavor of pepper and coconut oil. A deluge erupts from his palate. He places the pincer on his plate, sucks on his fingers, slowly removes the shell, and orders his third drink.
Lightning flashes through the glass panes of a window, and thunder rumbles in the distance. Vijay moves to the nearest window and watches. The sky darkens with rain clouds. A thundershower seems imminent.
He returns to his seat and calls the office on his cellular. “Ask everybody to wind up work,” he tells his secretary. “Hire a cab and get them dropped at their homes.”
Vijay finishes his drink, orders another. Outside, the rain pours, battering against the windowpanes like a heavenly shower of pebbles. He drums his fingers against the table, synchronizing the beats to the rhythmic clatter.
He presses the number of his residence. “Get the children to bed, and shift the oldest wine from the cellar to the freezer.” He chuckles. “Untimely rains call for celebration.”
“When are you returning?” his wife asks, her voice tense. “Be careful. You know how chaotic the traffic gets during bad weather.”
“Don’t worry, I’m on my way.” He ends the call.
Vijay leans back on the chair and stretches his arms and legs. He takes a deep breath, inhaling the heady smell of sodden earth. “Ah, Mother earth, how you smell like a virgin every time it rains,” he mumbles, hums a tune and gestures to the bearer for the bill.
Vijay eases his car out of the parking lot and, lights on high beam, shoots forward into the semidarkness at full throttle, splaying out water from the sides in arched patterns.
The highway is clogged, and a few people sporting umbrellas move gingerly in ankle-deep water. Vijay slows down, careful not to splatter water on the already drenched and shivering pedestrians.
He maneuvers the car slowly into a right turn, finds the road in better shape, and accelerates. The rain showers down with vigor, hitting the windshield in torrents. Vijay notices a boy running in the distance, clutching his stomach.
He pulls up the car near the boy, and rolls down the glass. “Can’t you wait till the rain stops?”
The boy stares down at him, a hand still clutching his stomach, and breathing heavily. “Emergency medicines for my mother.” He holds up a plastic bag. “I begged the cabbies, but none would listen.”
“Hop in,” Vijay says holding the door open. “I’ll take you where you need to go.”
The boy hesitates, and then gets in. “Sorry, I’m wetting your upholstery,” the boy says, squeezing himself to the far corner of the seat.
“Don’t worry, son.” Vijay pats his shoulder. “Make yourself comfortable.” He shifts gears and speeds away.
The boy’s home, a couple of blocks away from Vijay’s, is in darkness. He holds the door open for him.
“Don’t know how to thank you, sir.”
“Don’t bother,” Vijay says. “Now hurry up.”
The boy casts a lingering glance at Vijay and runs towards his house.
Vijay reverses the car and shoots forward. The rain still persists, lashing ferociously. Lightning flashes and thunder rumbles.
As he swerves towards his block, Vijay sees the aerial display of light in the dark horizon and stares at it dazzled. A flash of lightning dances on an electric pole on his opposite side, swishing along the cable in a fluid motion.
“What a fantastic night,” he murmurs.
A thunderbolt cracks on the bonnet of his car, and it explodes, bathing the neighborhood in a fierce orange glow.
* * *
The puja room is unlit.
An oil lamp hanging from a hook in the ceiling and camphor burning in a brass tray set on a wooden stand before the pictures of gods and goddesses illuminate the dark recesses of the room with a dim light. Incense sticks burn on a small silver stand.
Ajay stands before the deities, eyes closed, palms joined together and held against his chest, praying. He stays in the same position for about half an hour, chanting hymns.
He picks up a large conch shell and blows it, a ritual that concludes his dusk-time Puja. He lays the conch shell on the tray, sweeps the fallen ash of the incense sticks and burnt camphor with his right palm and smears it on his forehead. Then he prostrates himself on the floor, calls out ‘Narayana’ three times, a synonym of Vishnu, his favorite of the Trinity, the God responsible for ‘Sthithi,’ preservation of the Universe.
A sudden draft blasts through the open window and blows out the oil lamp. “Damn!” Ajay curses. “Looks like it’s going to rain.”
He sweeps the window closed and leaves the room, latching the door behind him. Lightning strikes, and thunder cracks.
“Raman,” he calls out for his servant. ‘Where the hell has this stupid man gone? Never there in times of need’. He stomps the verandah like a caged animal. Impatient. Angry.
“Laxmi!” he calls for his wife. “Get my clothes you left to dry on the terrace.” He trains his ears for footsteps on the staircase, and hears them.
Rain clatters on the concrete roof, and water spills on the ground like tiny streams. A wind lashes the coconut palms. Raman comes running and stands panting before him.
“Where the hell do you snore away your time?” Ajay demands. “Alert the laborers. The fields are going to flood, and the crops will ruin. Tell them to cut fresh grooves to divert the water.”
“But master, we can’t find them now.” Raman shivers as the wind laps up his naked upper torso. “They’ll be in toddy shops and arrack bars at this hour.”
“I don’t care where the hell they are or what they are doing,” Ajay snaps. “Pull them by their ears if you have to. I want the work done right now.”
Raman sneaks into the rain.
Ajay walks into the dining room, pulls out a chair and sits down. Laxmi serves him chapati, potato stew and a plate of fresh salad of cucumber, tomato and onion with lemon juice sprinkled over.
“Shambho, Mahadeva!” Ajay closes his eyes in a moment of prayer, then tears the chapati, dips it in the potato stew and eats.
Laxmi stands watching him. He picks up a cucumber slice, smells the aroma of lemon, and stuffs it into his mouth. “Get a green chili.”
Laxmi walks towards the kitchen.
“Not from the fridge, you fool,” Ajay shouts. “From the garden.”
Laxmi runs out into the rain and comes back drenched, the chilies in her clenched fist. She places them on the salad plate. He picks one up, and holds it against his nose.
“Umm... what a spicy odor!” He takes a bite.
“Shall I fetch you more chapati?” Laxmi’s frail body shivers as drops of water drip from her chin onto the mosaic floor.
He shakes his head. “Bring some fruit.”
Laxmi goes back to the kitchen, brings a bowl of fruits and places it on the table. Ajay selects a large, crimson apple and bites through its flesh. He finishes the fruit, and washes his hands in the washbasin.
“I’m going back to the Puja room for night prayers,” he says. “Have your food and go to bed. We’ve got a lot of work in the morning.”
He enters the Puja room and lights up the lamp.
Rain batters outside, the torrent’s lash against the window brings a harsh resonance to his ears. “Damn rain!” he says.
Ajay stands before the deities: eyes closed, palms held together against his chest, he chants the hymns.
“Oh Lord, save me and my beloved.” The sound of his prayers rises above the rumble of thunder. “Save our crops and property.”
Thunder rolls in the skies, the house jolts, and a vibration courses along the cement floor of the room.
“Lash your fury not upon us but upon our enemies,” he prays.
A bolt of lightning rips through the wall, strikes his chest, and his body is flung towards the opposite side.
* * *
The fragrance of blossoming flowers fills his nostrils as he opens his eyes. The garden is full of them. Roses, chrysanthemum, lilies, zinnia, marigold... and a variety of unfamiliar flowers.
Vijay stands up, inhaling the fresh air, filling his lungs with the sweet aroma. The sun shines in the east, painting the horizon with an orange hue. Dewdrops sparkle like tiny diamonds on lush grass that carpets the ground.
“Do you have a last wish?” A voice booms from behind him.
Startled, Vijay swirls around.
The man has a large moustache curled up at the tips into tight coils, covering most of his cheeks. His thick eyebrows arch upwards, and wrinkles crease his rosy forehead. Emeralds, rubies and sapphires stud the golden crown on his head, and a profuseness of jewelry shines on his neck. He bears a large club on one shoulder and a roll of coir rope coiled on the other.
He sits on a buffalo, a sturdy beast with pitch black, oily skin that glistens in the bright sun, and with large horns.
Vijay blinks and then remembers. Yama, the God of death.
He salutes the God and says, “A last wish? I don’t think I have any unfulfilled desires.”
“Not even your children? Don’t you want to do something for them?” Yama asks in a soft voice.
“Well, I don’t think I’ve left anything undone for them.” Vijay ponders, running a hand along his smooth chin. “No, they’re pretty well off.”
“Your wife, maybe?” Yama asks. “To spend a night with her? Maybe bid her goodbye?”
Vijay laughs. “To scare her?” He glances at the God. “Look, my wife may already know I’m dead. If I reappear, I’ll only scare her.”
Yama contemplates for a moment. “Maybe, you want to take a peek at your family before you depart?”
Vijay shakes his head. “That would only hurt — would make the departure painful.”
“Don’t you wish you had lived a little longer? To spend more time with your family?”
“I think I’ve had a good life, a blessed family, happiness...” Vijay walks towards Yama. “It’s the life till age forty that I expected. I was graced with seven additional years and I’m content. I think I must end the song while the tune is still good.”
“You’re not concerned for your children? Don’t you wish to live till they grow up?”
Vijay looks into the eyes of Yama. “A human being has to embrace death, sooner or later,” he says. “I’ve cared for my children thus far. They’ll have to bear the loss at some stage in their lives. They’ll learn to cope. It’s nature’s cycle.”
Vijay kneels before the God of Death.
Yama stares into the far horizon, at the blazing sun. “We have a problem,” the God of Death says.
* * *
Ajay opens his eyes to the darkness and smells stale blood. He chokes in the stench of animal excrement.
“Shit!” he yells. “Why the hell am I here?”
Laughter resonates on the walls of the abattoir. “You’re on your way to the ultimate trip.” An echo booms in his head. “This is your temporary shelter, before we begin the journey to our destination.”
“And who the hell are you?” he demands.
“I’m Kaalan, the deity of death,” the voice says. “Yama, to the refined.”
A jolt passes through Ajay’s body and he shivers as if lashed by a chilly gale. “Forgive me, Oh, Mighty Lord.” He prostrates on the dung-smeared floor. “I didn’t recognize you in the darkness.”
“Do you have a last wish?” the voice asks.
Ajay rises from the floor and holds his palms together. “Many, Lord. I have many wishes.”
“One wish.” The voice pauses for a second. “I can grant you just one last wish.”
“I want an extended term of life, Your Highness.”
The voice rings, “And what do you intend to do with it?” A ripple of laughter resounds inside the abattoir.
“I have many things left undone,” Ajay says. “I haven’t made a will yet. My sons will fight over the property. And I’m only fifty, just half of a man’s life.”
“You’ve left more than enough for everyone. Why would they fight?”
“They are greedy. Each wants a better share.”
“You must know that a man’s destiny cannot be extended,” the voice says.
“I’ve spent a whole lifetime in prayer, eating only vegetables and grain, never hurting an animal.” Ajay looks intently at the source of the voice and gets a glimpse of the club and the rope.
“And you force the laborers to toil, send your wife in the rain to fetch fresh chili?” the voice demands.
“Isn’t it their Karma, their Dharma, O Great One, to work for their master? Isn’t it the responsibility of a wife to serve her husband?”
“What is the Dharma of a human being?” the voice asks. “What is the ultimate path of his Karma?”
Ajay falls silent.
“Tell me if you have another wish.”
Ajay contemplates, unable to decide what to choose from the never-ending list of wishes.
* * *
Vijay opens his eyes and gazes into the bright light of the street lamp and then at a crowd that has gathered around him.
His body aches and limbs feel inflamed. He makes an effort to rise. A man from the crowd supports him. He recognizes his neighbor, a doctor.
“You’re lucky to have survived,” the man says. “Nothing short of a miracle.”
Vijay nods and looks into the far horizon.
A dark shadow moves towards the moon. Vijay rubs his eyes and watches. The buffalo moves as if it had wings, as if it were gliding in the air.
Yama sits smiling and then curves his hands around his mouth and says, “For us immortals, death carries a meaning. I’ll come back when you have an unfulfilled wish.”
Vijay shakes his head and smiles. At the other end of the rope on the god’s shoulder, a man struggles to break free like an animal being tugged into the abattoir.
Vijay glances towards his flat. The lights turn on.
Copyright © 2006 by Hareendran Kallinkeel