Thursday, 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016 Longlist Kartik Viswanath

The Bat

Nestling the tiny round ball of fur in his equally small hands, Bhuvan walked slowly and carefully. He had to ensure that he made no sudden movements. It took all his care and concentration as he walked along the mud path with the many sticks and stones pinching his bare feet.
For the first time, his father Shankar had done something right. He might be a useless drunk on most days but sometimes, just sometimes he knew how to make his son happy.

Today Bhuvan decided to forgive him all his faults. Tomorrow he could pick up where he left off.
Shankar absolutely treasured his daily dose of landa, the fiery alcohol he brewed himself from the grain that grew in the fields all around the village. He was skilled at making it and he was equally good at downing large amounts of it at one go. This didn’t make him a particularly good father or husband. Most evenings he would be swaying through the lanes of Leduguda, swearing at dogs that came in his way and trees that blocked the moonlight. His slurry speech would echo throughout the village as Bhuvan’s mother lay asleep in bed. She no longer had any expectations from her husband and saw him as nothing more than an unavoidable nuisance. In fact the only reason the villagers tolerated him was because of the potency of his landa. 

Last night, after a few mugfuls, he had headed into the forest in search of some food. It wasn’t wise to go hunting in an intoxicated state, what with the bears and jackals roaming the thickets, but Shankar was in no condition to be reasoned with. So nobody bothered to stop him. He must have fallen asleep at the foot of some tree because when he woke up, hungry and confused, he found something else sleeping beside him.
***

As soon as Bhuvan stepped into the hostel, he was surrounded by a hundred curious little heads, cocking left and right like pigeons.
"It's a baby bat," Bhuvan said, looking up for the first time since his father had placed it in his hands back in the village. The creature's eyes were closed tight. The light and the sound must be troubling it, he thought. He remembered reading something somewhere about bats being sensitive to loud noises and bright lights.
He pushed everyone out of his way, allowing only his friend Mohan to walk by his side. They started walking towards their room so that they could sit in some quiet and decide what to do next. There were important matters to consider--where it would sleep, what it would eat, perhaps have a naming ceremony? These were big responsibilities for a ten-year-old but Bhuvan was confident he would learn. As soon as this creature had been entrusted to him by his father, the mantle had been passed from one generation to the next. He would do everything within his power to see that he wouldn’t fail like his father had.

"Chheee! What is that Bhuvan?"
It was Sangita didi. Bhuvan jumped around and thrust his open hands into her face. "Look at it! My father found it in a tree."
"Chhee!! Chhhee! Take it away from me!" she screamed. "What are you going to do with it? What happened to the mother? Did you two have breakfast? Speaking of which, how will you feed this… this thing?"

Bhuvan and Mohan looked at each other. They hadn't a clue about any of this but there was no way they were going to let Sangita didi know that. They would have to put up a confident front, or else she might not let them keep it.
“Don’t worry didi. I’m going to look after it. My father found it abandoned in the forest and I am going to raise it now. I just got back from the village so I haven’t had a chance to meet or speak to anyone. There are more important things to decide first. Like what I should feed it.” And saying so, he looked at his partner.
"Milk, maybe?" Mohan offered.
A big smile spread across Bhuvan's face. Of course! That's what all babies need!

"Mohan, run to the kitchen and ask Rupali didi for a cup of milk. I'll wait for you in the room. "He said and walked away from Sangita didi, leaving her standing there with a bewildered expression on her face.
Back in the room, he shut the door and the windows letting in only a sliver of sunlight. He placed the tiny fur ball on his bed and set about looking for a home for it. He rummaged through shelves and bags, even those belonging to others. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

At last he found an old coconut oil can. The lid was missing but its mouth was wide enough for the bat to fit in. He placed his handkerchief in the tin to make a bed, and then gently picked up the baby and placed it inside the can. It seemed like it would do for now. He wasn’t very sure how to create an ideal habitat. Perhaps a visit to the library would yield some results. He decided to skip ten minutes of English class today and browse through some library books.
Just then the door opened. "Can I see it, Bhuvan bhaiya?"
It was Malti, always poking her nose in other people's business.
"Go away Malti. I'll tell didi you’re troubling me.”
“Let me see it na bhaiya. I promise I’ll go away if you show it to me once.”
“Fine. Come and take a quick look. But then you have to get lost. I can’t waste my time talking to you.”
Malti came over and peeked into the can. She had a wide smile on her face and it was clear to Bhuvan that she did not plan on leaving any time soon.
“It’s so small and furry. Why are its eyes closed? Have you thought of a name yet? I can help you pick one if you want! Oh please, please, let me pick the name Bhuvan bhaiya!”
Bhuvan was in no mood for Malti’s antics. He got up off the bed and moved towards her, trying to guide her towards the open door.

“I’ll think about your offer Malti but right now it needs to get some rest and some food. So why don’t you carry on to class. I’m sure didi must be waiting for you. And also, go tell Mohan to hurry up. What is taking him so long?"
"I got it! I got it!" Mohan shoved Malti aside and came stumbling into the room. He had a small steel bowl in his hands.
"There was no milk. The village cows are underfed so they aren't making enough milk for us. That’s what Rupali didi said."
"So then what is in the bowl?”
"Oh this," he explained. "I told didi why we needed milk so she mixed some Amul powdered milk in water. Will it do?"
Bhuvan looked at Mohan's face, then at the baby bat, then at the bowl, and then at Mohan again. "It will have to do. Give it to me."
He took the bowl from Mohan and set it down next to the oil can. “Now what do I do," he thought. "How does one feed a baby bat?”

Its mouth was too small for a bottle so that was out of the question.
“How about a dropper? Like the one Bina didi uses to give us medicines?”
Mohan had come up with a brilliant suggestion but the only problem was that they didn’t have the keys to the medicine cupboard and Bina didi would not return from class till lunchtime. They couldn’t wait that long so Bhuvan decided to make do without it. He dipped his little finger in the bowl. A drop of milk clung to it. Slowly he brought his fingertip near the bat's mouth. The mouth was shut tight. His finger wavered, and the droplet fell on the baby's nose. It twitched slightly. Then nothing.

The droplet trickled down onto the handkerchief.
"Try again," Mohan said.
Bhuvan dipped his little finger again and brought it to the bat's mouth. But still, the mouth remained shut.
"Maybe it isn’t hungry right now."
Bhuvan was glad for Mohan's company, since his own rapidly waning optimism urgently needed some support.
"Should we get him some bugs? Bats like bugs, don't they?" Mohan's advice was, once again, invaluable.
So they both rushed out into the garden. They spread out and divided up the vegetable garden between the two of them. Bhuvan dove into the sea of pumpkin vines while Mohan scoured the tomato plants. Within 5 minutes, they had a diverse collection of aphids, worms and flies crawling all over their fingers.
Into the oil can they all went, within the baby's reach. But the bat didn't even flinch.
The boys were disappointed. They were turning out to be horrible parents.
"Let him sleep. Maybe he'll be hungry later."

Bhuvan had run out of ideas by now so he decided to give in to Mohan’s counsel. He placed the can in a corner of the loft above his bed. It would be safe from prying eyes here till he got back. Besides it was nice and cool and he felt the baby would enjoy sleeping there.

Then, the boys went off to class. The whole time though, Bhuvan was lost in thought as he worried about the baby. What if it woke up? What if someone found it? What if a bird flew into the room?
As soon as class was over, he grabbed Mohan and rushed back to the room. The bat was still asleep. There was no change in its disposition. One bug was perched on its left ear but the bat didn't seem to notice. The only consolation was that they could see its tiny chest moving up and down.

The boys decided to have a quick lunch and then come back to check on the bat.
As they walked to the kitchen, Malti came up to Bhuvan.
“It’s still asleep, isn’t it Bhuvan bhaiya?” she asked.
“Yes.” Bhuvan mumbled. He was too worried to pay attention to Malti right now.
Ledku! That’s what you should name it! Isn’t it a great name?”

This brought a smile to Bhuvan’s face.  Ledku, in their language, meant lazy. And for a bat that spent all day sleeping it was the perfect name. He gave her an approving pat on the head, and sat down to eat.
That night, before sleeping, Bhuvan tried to feed it some milk again. He left the droplet clinging to the hairs near the baby's mouth. “Come on Ledku”, he urged.
It was the best he could do. Placing the can back in the loft, he closed his eyes and said a quick prayer for the baby. "Maybe tomorrow."   

"Bhuvan wake up! It's gone!" It was Mohan shouting into his ear.
"Wait...what?" Bhuvan jumped on top of his bed and looked into the can. It was empty. "Where is it? Who took it out?"
He looked around, scared and angry. But everyone else looked just as troubled.
Had it flown out? Where could it be?
They looked everywhere -- behind the doors, the windows, under the beds. But it was nowhere to be found.
Tears streamed down Bhuvan's face. The salty liquid dribbled into his mouth, the same way he'd hoped the milk would enter the baby's mouth.
He felt Mohan's hand on his shoulder. Reassurance. Support.
But it did not help stop the tears.
***

Two days later, it was Mohan’s turn to clean the room. He had been instructed to push the beds out of the way and make sure no dirt was left behind. The boys’ rooms were notorious for their filth so didi made sure they worked extra hard to clean it. As he pushed aside the case of shelves, a foul smell rushed up into his nostrils. As he pushed a bit more, sunlight streaming through the windows reached the dark spots. There in the corner, a small furry creature was lying curled up, completely still.
"Bhuvan!" he called.

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