Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Dr. Roshan Radhakrishnan


Sanctuary

Though I do not hear him, I am made aware of his arrival by the pony-tailed face of Beena peeking out from her bedroom door. The frown creasing her forehead disappears as the front door opens and her grandfather's distinctive figure walks in. Her joy is short lived though as the shadows part to reveal his face. Renjith trudges past us both towards the bedroom, ignoring the chapattis and mango fish curry I had left on the dining table for him. I feel a tug on my sari and turn to find Beena peering up at me sorrowfully.
Muthassi, will Muthachan be joining us for dinner?"
"I don't think so. He must have eaten from outside already. Why don't you have your food and then go to your room and read something? Your Muthachan seems to be tired. Let him rest." I lied.  
---
As I entered the bedroom, I could not help but note how our old tie-dyed blue sheets barely registered his resting frame upon it these days, engulfing him as though he were nothing more than one of its own untidy folds. The weight loss because of stress was evident; the day she had arrived at our place for her holiday, Bee had jokingly asked me if the elephants of Begur were stealing her grandfather’s food. We had laughed then but seeing him now, I feel my chest tighten. I sat down beside him, nudging his shoulder.

"What did he say?"
"Sanjay’s changed." His voice was dry and exhausted and I placed my palm gently on his hand, stroking it softly.
"He is an important man for the people of Wayanad. He is a big MLA now, after all."
"He used to be like our child!" He lifted his arm off his face and I saw in his eyes a mixture of anger and sorrow.
“This is the same child of Rajesh ettan who used to eat his evening kanji at our house for so many years while his father smuggled goods across the state in his lorry. He grew up playing in this house – in this very sanctuary he is partitioning away illegally."
"He is not that boy anymore. He is a politician and has to make compromises.”
"That is exactly what is wrong, Devika! When I reminded him of how he had promised to stop those land grabbers from illegally taking over the sanctuary land once he got elected, he told me that his siding with them now is just politics, nothing personal. I pleaded about how building within this sanctuary would destroy the habitats of so many animals and he just said that mother nature would find a way for them to survive, if it was meant to be." 

Spittle erupts from his mouth as he barks those last few words, landing upon the back of my palm and just like that, the spell is broken. The Renjith of old peeps through those bloodshot eyes and he reaches out apologetically, using the loose end of his shirt to wipe my hand clean. 
"I am sorry, Devika. He made me go from house to house, staking my reputation to get our people to vote for him. And now he has betrayed that trust and we cannot do a thing about it. It just hurts."
"I know, Renju."
"My father was right. He used to say that the people of our tribe were smart but never street-smart. It was a flaw in our blood. We never succeeded in life because of that."  
Lying beside him, I kiss his grizzled cheek.
"We have had a good life. We have run this house together for so long and survived into our seventies, haven’t we? From just knowing ‘Good morning. How do you do? Welcome to Begur wildlife sanctuary. I will show you elephants’, we ended up learning to speak not just English but so many foreign languages too talking to these tourists. All our lives, we have made people happy and never cheated anyone. Doesn’t that count?"

From the living room, I hear the fridge door closing and with it, the memory of a young girl’s imploring eyes return.  
"Bee is leaving in two days. Do you remember what you promised her?"
"I cannot, Devika. I will take her to see the sanctuary the next time she visits."
“But that will be next year.”
“So?”
"What if there isn’t a next year?"

The words leave my mouth before I can stop myself. It is insensitive of me, I know. He is hurting, this man I love so deeply. But Beena is the last connection we have to our daughter Radha; Radha who lived with us here for twenty-three years at the feet of these Western Ghats through droughts and downpours, loans and scorpion stings only to be lost to us two years ago in a fully lit Bangalore street, run over by a faceless drunken driver.

Renjith does not answer me and I find myself praying as I place my head upon this frail chest that has been my pillow for many a painful night. I pray sleep embraces him softly in her arms tonight, allowing the darkness to comfort him better than I can. I pray to the Mother Goddess, hoping against hope for a miracle.

---

"Do you hear that pee-ko-ko pee-ko-ko call, Bee? That is a Wayanad laughing thrush. Can you see her there walking ahead of us? Yes, you can take a picture but don’t scare her away with any quick movements." I watch Renjith wince as his old knees struggle up the sloping rocky pathway but in his voice, the famous young guide of Begur of the seventies is besides us once more.

After the lows of the previous night, Renjith had woken up feeling refreshed today morning and following an uncharacteristic second piece of puttu with his kadala curry, Beena and I were delighted when he asked us to get dressed and be ready to leave the house in twenty minutes.  

In many ways, that house is but a resting stop for him. These unbridled forests brimming with bisons and bears, elephants and jungle cats - this is his home. Renju invariably forgets where he leaves his chappals inside our tiny house and yet, here within these forests, he knows the breath of the mossy soil beneath his feet, the footsteps behind every crackle on the canopy above him and the emotions behind every call from the animals around him.

My focus turns back to them - grandfather and child - taking perhaps their last walk here in this part of the forest that has provided us – and all the creatures within - sanctuary for our entire lifetime. I watch as Renjith bends down on one knee and cups his hand across his mouth. He starts to make a soft whining sound, slowly rising in crescendo. From where I stand, I can see Beena’s eyes flit between the screen of her mobile and my husband, trying to understand what is happening.

I envy her this moment. I remember the first time he did this for me and recall the hair on my arms standing on end the moment the rustling had begun from the foliage beside the rosewoods. That was fifty years ago. This is now. For a moment, I worry that nothing will happen. I need not have.

Less than two minutes pass by before the familiar sound of slender feet dawdling through the fallen leaves fill the air. My eyes remain on Beena, savouring her astonishment as two pairs of jet-black eyes peep through the woods, suspicious of her before recognizing the old man beside her. I watch their white-tipped tails swish from side to side as they step forward into the light.  

Yes, he knows the animals well. Perhaps more importantly, they too know him as one of them, a trusted creature of their home. That is why Sanjay’s betrayal hurts him so much, I know. It is not about the loss of livelihood – a few dozen acres will not affect us. No. Renju mourns the loss to this family of his. And though I want to help him, deep down I know there is nothing two aging tribals like us can do against the changing morals of the world.

---

The first call arrived four evenings after we had watched Beena board the last bus out of Mananthawady and back to Bangalore where her father and new mother resided.  The Karkidaka masam rains had descended and brought along with it, the arthritis of my joints. Renjith was massaging hot coconut oil over my knees as I rested against the living room wall when she called. Since his hands were soiled, I picked the call and as always, pressed the speaker on so that Beena’s voice filled the room.

With the heavy downpour bombarding our tiles, the poor thing had to repeat almost everything she said. It did not help that what we could hear made no sense to us at all. Renjith tried to contribute, assuring Bee that he was not feeling sick when she told him he had gone viral but that only made her laugh even louder. I laughed aloud with her even as Renju glared at me, annoyed. I suspect Bee knew that I did not understand either but like her mother, she sided with me in mocking this man we both loved.

The truth is we do not understand the internet. From the American tourists last year who attached their mobiles to long sticks and took photographs beside a pair of grazing boars whose puzzled expressions probably matched Renjiths’ to even Dinesh ettan who cycles down every morning to sell us the freshest mathi he buys from the fish market, everyone uses these new phones and computers with internet. Everyone except the two of us.

So if I make any mistakes in explaining this next part, please be kind to this old woman. Apparently, Beena had taken lot of photos that day but she had also recorded videos on her internet mobile. This included not just the annoyed growls of Basheera, the tigress as she lay belly-up taking in the sun that morning but also the grumbles of my own old tiger here about how the land was being taken away illegally.

As creative as her mother - it comes from the Chitira star sign both were born under, I tell you – Beena put all the videos and photos on this internet in places where lots of people could see it. Her school friends and even teachers helped her share this with others, she explained, because they believed more people needed to know the truth about how tribals were being cheated by corrupt leaders.

From there, somehow, our worries became the worries of the world. In four days, four lakh people – more than ten times the population of our Mananthawady - watched the video of the spotted deer and her young fawn emerging from the woods that afternoon and walking up to my husband, allowing him to hug and feed them from his hand. They fell in love with it all – the grazing bisons and the noisy mynas, the regal teaks and the flowing rivers and yes, even the aging old guide whom these wild animals trusted. And they wanted justice for them all.

We were worried, naturally. Her father was angry with us for putting her in such a situation, she had reluctantly admitted. He had every right to be, of course. With the public suddenly aware of a possible political scandal, we feared how Sanjay and his party workers would react and advised Beena as best as we could. She was a smart girl but she was our blood, in the end. Smart but not necessarily street-smart, as her great grandfather used to say.

The call that mattered most to us came at the end of a calm Friday night as we were heading off to bed. The radio's forecast of heavy showers had been grossly inaccurate - I had known it by early evening when my knees did not throb - and so Begur lay serenely, silent but for a lone woodpecker working overtime. I had heard the tiles creak above our head a while ago and knew that if the moon were looking down upon our house tonight, it would spy a familiar Malabar civet nestling comfortably there, ready to turn in for the night herself.

"Well, I'll be..." Renjith sat up on the edge of the bed, staring at the name on the mobile for at least five rings before picking it up.
"What is it, child?" he asked. The voice that filled our bedroom was slurred as though he had been drinking. It was a fry cry from the refined baritone that had filled me with pride the day he had sat at our courtyard asking my husband for help in convincing the villagers.
"I guess you have heard." Sanjay said. "Those nature activists who took up the cause after your videos went viral convinced the state to launch an investigation into whether the sanctuary land had been sold illegally to private parties."
Renjith’s face betrayed no emotion as Sanjay continued.

"It is okay, uncle." The slurring persisted but there was a perceptible change in his tone, the successful politician handing the phone over to the young boy who used to play in this house a lifetime ago.
"Do not worry about me. We politicians will find a way to escape. A little money here, a few favours there, a new controversy somewhere else to bury this story. As for the land, the investors backed off once the media focus turned to the sanctuary.”

There was a long gap before he continued.
“For what it is worth, I am sorry, uncle. I know what it meant to you and Devika Amma. In playing this game of politics, sometimes we forget where we came from and what should matter. I know how horribly I treated you the last time we…"
"I forgive you, Sanju." Renjith interjected. Again, there was a pause before Sanju responded.
"Thank you, uncle. I really called you at this late hour just to apologize." He laughed, a gentle and sincere one. "I have to admit. In my wildest dreams, I did not expect it though."
"What?" 
"That day when you left, I was sure you had given up. I expected you would complain to Dinesh uncle and that milkman... what was his name? I forget."
"Kandappan."
"Yes, Kandappan uncle. How could I forget his name. He was the one who snuck me my first cigarette. I figured you all would sit by that mango tree in the yard and complain about me to one another but that would be it. Never did I imagine you would use the internet and bring the whole world down to Begur.”

A peculiar smile played on Renju’s lips. I recognized the change in his tone too when he replied, the old man retreating to allow the haughty young guide of old to speak.
"Sanju, we do not even have internet here in this house. I did not do anything. I had no press conferences or party workers speaking in news channels to help me. Today if lakhs of people have seen me talk, that is because you underestimated not me but how nature works."
"I don't understand, uncle."
"Do you remember reading about pollination in school, Sanju?”
“Yes, of course, uncle. But what does that have to do with this?”
“Everything, my child. You see, the plants do not move from the soil. And yet, their seeds travel hundreds of miles away ensuring they survive. Birds, butterflies, bees… everyone aids them while they stand still. Is that not what happened here? In this case, all it took was one single pony-tailed ‘Bee’. Do you understand, Sanju? You got bested by your own electronic version of pollination – the internet."

Sanju’s throaty laughter lit up our bedroom and I found myself joining him a moment later. I listened in for a few minutes more but found my thoughts drifting away as the two men turned back the clock, recalling days gone by.

As I turned away from Renjith towards the silver moonlight floating in through the open window, I found myself looking back too, remembering the first time a spotted deer had come up to me all those years ago, trusting me because she trusted my husband. I remembered the many times I had watched silently in awe as these birds and animals – each so different from the other - walked beside each other in harmony, contributing in their own unique means to maintain the balance of this home they shared, a lesson humans struggled to learn even today sadly.

I also remembered the feeling of helplessness within my heart the night Renjith came home defeated and how I fell asleep praying to the Goddess for a miracle. And as was the case so often since the dawn of time, she had responded.     

Mother nature had found a way once more to provide sanctuary for her children.

No comments:

Post a Comment