Thursday 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Amita Dogra

Red Is The Colour I Dread

 Red is the colour I distantly remember my whole family drenched in, the colour that the lush green fields turned to immediately after the riots. It is the colour I watched flowing endlessly in every naali of the mohalla then. Red is the colour I dread because, by the time Bade Sahib came to my rescue that day, my vest had also turned red. 
 It almost seemed like they were on the verge of annihilating our whole race that day. That is when Bade Sahib appeared from nowhere, clasped my hand to pull me from the heap of bodies one on top of the other and jerked me into his arms. Soon after, my small body curled around his chest and went numb. 

 When I regained consciousness, I found myself in a cowshed, along with a newborn calf, amidst a heap of cow dung, the stench of urine and an intimidating blob of red between the cow’s hind legs. ‘I want to go home!’ I shrieked.
 Bade Sahib’s tone was hushed. ‘Quiet! You don’t have a home anymore. Hide in the corner and don’t come out until I ask you to.’

 I vaguely remember cuddling and mothering Booboo in secret. I survived by drinking milk from the cow’s udders and nibbling on the jaggery they fed him. In a few days, he became stronger, more adorable and playful; certainly more than a five, six-year-old human child as myself. 

 After a few days, Bibiji came with Bade Sahib to the cowshed, Bibiji’s expression was a mix of pity and hatred.
‘Since when has he been here, Ji?’ she enquired.

‘It has been six days.’
‘And you are telling me now?’
‘Calm down; his father was Babaji’s favourite employee. That day I reached our farms, the paddy fields had turned red, and the soot from the smoke blurred my vision. In that stillness, his was the only body that showed any sign of life. I wrapped him in my jacket and came elsewhere.’

‘But why the hell do we have to shelter him and risk our own lives?’
‘Sarita, his family has given years to our farms. And he can be of immense help to you in bringing up our children.’ 
‘Ram! Ram! He is a Muslim! Do you think I would let him in the house?’
‘Let him do the chores outside! Let him take care of the cowshed. No one in our village knows him. Just say he is an orphan,’ Bade Sahib sighed.

 The coming days were rough and traumatic, but somehow I survived the hatred and disconnection. In no time, I became Bibiji’s blue-eyed boy. Her five children kept me on my toes. Booboo became my only solace. 
 With time I learnt that they had ripped the country into two and the ripples had placed me in Kathua, a small village on the border of Jammu & Kashmir. The new place had given me a new name, maybe to hide my ethnicity or highlight my physical trait. But they forced me to live with my new name, Kallu, which they had thrust upon me. People around the house scrutinised me from head to toe. When my colour, my appearance or dialect didn’t reveal much of my background, the Taveez tied around my neck lent a lot of fodder to their imagination. But amidst speculation, scrutiny, and even apathy, I salvaged what was left of myself.
Within the next few years, I learned to milk the cow, mastered making cow-dung cakes and helped Bibiji with all the daily chores. Whatever little free time I had I would spend with Booboo, riding on his back in the fields. 
 The only mandir in the village became my clock. I would wake up with the blowing of the conch-shell before dawn and rested after the tolling of the bells stopped at midnight. From the children in the house, I had heard stories of all the gods inside the mandir. Krishna was my favourite. One he was black like I was, and two he liked Booboo. 
 In my early years, I always thought if they ever allowed me to enter the mandir, I would surely ask, ‘Krishna, you are also Kallu like me, so how do they allow you inside the mandir and not me?’ Later I realised that they considered something else about me darker than my skin. But if you asked me, I didn’t know a thing about my religion. Krishna was my God. I grew up listening to the prayers sung in his glory. For the last seventy years or more, I have bowed to him and mainly him in every moment of agony, pain or contentment. And every time I passed the temple, I tried to catch a glimpse of him. But I failed.
 The only day in the year Pujari Ji officially invited me to stand outside the temple was Bhandara. Everyone in the village visited the temple on Basant Panchami to have the annual feast, dressed in the brightest, most colourful clothes. I would also dress my best, not to have a feast but to take care of the slippers of the whole village. It gave me the authority to summon anyone who touched someone else’s slippers. This was the high point of my job! That day my gaze would wander from the slippers to the food, to the shiny utensils and to the red mat on which everyone sat. 
At the end of the ceremony, Pujari Ji would give me prasad from a small distance, but he never encouraged me to go in. The yearly ritual continued with the same enthusiasm decade after decade. Infants grew into adolescents, and the youth turned older in front of my eyes year after year. 
But every year I waited for one pair of slippers desperately. Hers. To this day, I do not know her names. The tinkling of her anklets would infuse energy into my body, and her soft voice would make my lonely soul rejoice. ‘Kallu, keep my chappals close to you. See that no one steps on them,’ she would say before taking the slippers off her tender feet.
I fondly remember the curved arches of her feet, her gleaming toenails and her intricate payaal. I used to get so absorbed by her feet that I often forgot to exchange a glance with her.
Although our eyes met a few times, her dreamy ones kept my hopes alive. Until that Basant Panchami when she walked towards me and said, ‘Kallu, keep my sandals safely. These are new and very expensive.’ 
As she was trying to unbuckle her sandals, I noticed a new pair of anklets and shiny toe rings on her painted toes. My heart skipped a beat. I raised my eyes from her feet to her face. She blushed, her colouring cheeks widening her face. Immediately, I spotted a round, red bindi on her forehead, blood red lipstick on her lips and a shimmering red dupatta around her head. A strong wave of shock washed over me I couldn’t utter a word. 
That was the only day she had touched my hand and said, ‘Kallu, I am speaking to you.’ As her red bangles jangled against my wrist, I said, ‘I will, don’t worry.’ And in the glow of the red she wore from head to toe, my heart darkened once more.  My life’s melancholy is that I hadn’t advanced beyond being a chappal-wala over such a long time.
 I had been so absorbed in the monotony of rural life that I had never tried to step out of the small village. Complacency, under the shadow of Bade Sahib and Bibiji, kept me going, until one night when I heard Bade Sahib howling, ‘Kallu, come fast! See, your Bibiji is not responding!’  It was sudden. She had died of a cardiac arrest. The following morning, her daughters clothed her body in red clothes, bindi and sindoor. She looked just like a bride. I wanted to hold Bibiji’s feet one last time but I couldn’t. She wasn’t my mother, but I regarded her as no less than that. I often wondered if she ever considered me more than Kallu? While she had had all her children married in front of me, how had she never thought about me? 

Nevertheless, life went on without her. All her children, except Bade Bhaiya, moved to bigger cities. And Bade Sahib couldn’t survive for a long after Bibiji, either.  However, I kept slogging, the same way, in the same cowshed, with one Booboo after another.  

Now I am almost eighty, I do not take care of slippers on the day of Bhandara anymore, but I stand outside and watch people laughing, singing, and eating merrily. And I wonder, will I ever be able to see Krishna in my life or will I sit on the red mat, crossed-legged like the others, while Pujari Ji serves me prasad? Or is it I am still intimidated by the red rug, red flags, and red flame inside the temple?

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