Storyglossia Issue 10, October 2005.

A Lost Child

by Krishna Mohan Mishra

 

Dilip, a thirty-year-old man, pauses on the grassy sidewalk, below the wooden wraparound balcony. He has a blank face. He wears a white cotton shirt and black corduroy trousers. He stares at the people walking, pretending to be waiting for somebody to show up. One hand above his eyes against the afternoon sun, the other in his trouser pocket. From time to time, he looks out of the corner of his eye at the two slim girls seated on a bench with their backs to the street. The girls look to be in their twenties. He Doesn't see the tall man or his wife. They may be inside, he thinks. They must have changed a lot in appearance. Their faces must have wrinkled, their hair must have thinned and grayed. Dilip is sure to recognize them once they enter his vision. These girls must be their daughters. Their thin arms are playing with the rail. He strains to listen, but from their unclear mumblings between giggles he can't understand what language they're speaking.

Dilip's eyebrows lift and his sweating forehead stiffens when a fat, gray-haired woman appears behind the railing, walking toward the girls. Two white plates on a colorful tin tray—probably snacks for them. She wears a pink gown with white polka dots. Looks around fifty. The tall man's wife, Dilip hopes, and waits for her to speak, holding his breath.

"Aren't you hungry, girls?" His face drops to his chest, his pointed nose crumpled, lips tightly curled back. He sighs like a tire punctured by a street nail. Damn, she speaks Tharu. He continues his walk down the scorching street. The tall man and his wife spoke Bhojpuri. Their words jingle in his ears, too remote and slurred for him to understand. On both sides, two-story brick buildings rise behind the cast-iron gates. On the balconies, old couples lounge in wicker chairs, chatting in a relaxed way. Through the small gaping doors in the center of the gates, he can glimpse part of the empty stoops. The lawns are blazing carpets.

 

Last night in bed, as he closed his eyes, he got a vague feeling that around age five, he walked to a tall man's house. The feeling was accompanied by a hazy image: an old single-story structure with a wraparound balcony held up by tall wooden posts. Lest he might forget it by morning, Dilip reached for his diary and made a quick note: SEARCH OUT THE HOUSE. He wonders why it never once occurred to him in such a long time to search out the house and meet the tall man and his wife. Or did the thought come often and fade away as soon as it was light and noisy? Like a memory that surfaces only in the hazy calm of night, when your eyes are closed? He feels sure this has nothing to do with Namrata leaving him.

Dilip began his quest on the narrow lane in his neighborhood that he hadn't walked for years—just in case. At Shanti Chowk, two narrow streets branch off the main street and meander like rivulets intersecting the main street every half mile or so. He entered and followed almost each one, scanning each house, even though the street the tall man's house stood on was quiet and narrow. Dilip can picture his small feet moving down it toward the house.

Dilip could have so easily visited the house when he was still a boy or adolescent. But now at this age, wouldn't it look way too awkward? he wonders. How is he going to introduce himself? They have likely forgotten him, and may even hate talking to him, thinking him a stranger, let alone welcoming him with warmth.

Whatever, Dilip must visit. The thought of talking to them about that sweet little incident feels so soothing.

 

At three thirty, he is passing a saw mill. Lemon wood dust floating in the air decorates his sweaty black hair. Beyond the stacks of sun-dried timbers, under a wooden shed, the teeth of an invisible electric saw whirrs. Parvati, his fourteen-year-old housemaid, must be wondering why he didn't return for lunch. She must have cleared up the cup and plate that he put back on the desk beside his blue diary. In front of the silver frame, out of which his mother always stares at him with a wan smile begging to love, or begging to be loved? Her thin gray hair hangs to her shoulders in irregular, untidy waves. Her face tilts a little to the side, in a tired way. He thinks of his classes. Each of them must have raised a din disturbing the adjoining classes. He thinks of the principal's bearded face puzzling and freaking out over his unnotified absence. He joined Ideal Secondary School as a science teacher only last year. It's his third job in the last three years. From the last two jobs he was dismissed for the same reason: his students complained that he didn't speak aloud and didn't explain enough.

He trudges on, shifting his gaze from balcony to balcony. The cuffs of his black cotton jeans sweep over his black leather shoes. Namrata's pink face smiles at him. He inhales the soapy smell of her neck, as she bends over to hand him a morning cup of tea. Her black hair wrapped in a towel dripping over her back. Namrata. Namrata. Every morning, as he's lying in bed, it's not Parvati whom he expects to walk over with his breakfast, it's Namrata. Namrata knows that too well. He's used to it. But he has no right to blame her. The truth is, he hardly gave her the happiness a husband is supposed to give his wife. He didn't even have two sweet words for her. Five years ago, when she first saw him, he had a smile on his face. She must have thought, What a cheerful husband He's going to make! How long was it before she got to know the truth? A year? A month? He would never have allowed his inner unhappiness to show up in her presence, if it were in his power. To prevent it, he wouldn't even have sung a sad song in her presence.

 

A quiet green house catches his eyes. Tall weeds choke the front lawn where red and yellow flower beds used to blink. He doesn't see anybody. He wants to enter but doesnít dare. He remembers playing below the balcony, and the boy up on the balcony shouting a nursery rhyme. He was Dilip's school friend. Dilip doesn't remember his face or anything else about the Boy's parents, but thanks them for sticking to Green—Dilip's favorite color. It's two-story and wooden. Yet this is not the house he's looking for. The tall man's house doesn't have such a big yard on the roadside.

A few paces further, he pauses near a bamboo-barred gate. His eyes race over the small lawn, where three dry saris ripple on a plastic line stretching between two bamboo poles. The four o'clock sun shines on the white walls of the two single-story buildings. A narrow brick-paved yard cuts through their verandahs. In the verandah of the new building (which did not exist back then), a young woman dressed in a sari slouches against a pillar. A little girl in a red frock, probably her daughter, tugs at her hand. Both are dark-skinned and look to be tenants.

As he is wondering about the landlady, she emerges from the yard, pulling the end of her purple sari over her gray hair. Her bulging hips jiggle as she walks across the lawn to the saris. She has put on weight and become a little slow in her gait. But she retains the intent look in her eyes. Despite her dark skin and excess flesh, there's something about her that reminds him of his mother—perhaps her thick lips and protruding upper teeth. His ma's teeth weren't so prominent, though. More than the teeth and the lips, it's the language. He remembers the landlady speaks Bhojpuri, like his mother. The desire to talk to her overwhelms him. In Bhojpuri! Maybe his mother would answer through this woman's voice. When he asked his mother eight years ago, "Ma, how many years more do you think you'll live?" She said, "Five at the most, but don't worry, I'll be with you even after leaving this body." She didn't keep the promise, though. She died the very next year.

The landlady pulls the saris into her arms, frowning at him. He steps forward across the pavement grass. She approaches, and looks into his face, frowning deeper. Then explodes into a smile. "Areee! Dilip!" He smiles back. His smile like a wave foaming a quiet, dusky shore.

"Step in, Step in." She quickly slides the bamboos for him to step across.

She holds his hand and leads him into the yard. Her hands feel like his mother's. They pass the first door of the old building. He notices her husband resting in bed, his pointed face under the window, his white pajamas shining. He is much thinner than his wife—hasn't changed over the years.

"You know he's my first son, has come to visit his mother after twenty-five years," she introduces him in her loud voice to the young woman and her daughter. The little girl gazes at him in wonder. The young woman smiles at her affectionate way of introducing a stranger.

"Who's it?" The landlady's husband calls out in a grumpy voice.

"Vikram's son. The road contractor, our old tenant," she calls back.

Everything wrenches his heart: the sloping tin roof of the older building that has rusted so much ever since his days of living here, the crumbling walls, and most of all the verandah and the old, black door. The landlady pushes it open. He follows her inside. The room has been turned into a guest room: an old-looking couch set against a wall facing a fourteen inch TV atop a tall wooden cabinet and a lavender-painted steel wardrobe standing against the opposite wall. The walls have been repainted and the floor has been given a smooth concrete surface.

"Make yourself comfortable while I fix you tea." She steps out with the saris.

He sits on the couch in front of the wardrobe mirror. Takes out a white cotton handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wipes the sweat off his face and neck. As he looks around, the present dissolves. The room gets dim and stuffy. The plaster peels off the walls. The mud floor dampens his thighs as he sits cross-legged next to a bed. He smells his father's sweat-drenched shirt hanging on the bed post and the greasy pots of food in front of him. His stepmother, her thin, dented face the color of walnut, squats opposite him, dressed in a brick-colored sari. On a steel plate yellow dal seeps through the rice and collects around the edges diluting the fried potato chips. She shifts her eyes back and forth between his face and his plate. His father is resting in bed after lunch, a cigarette glowing between his thick, dark fingers. His stepmother sustains a smile around her lips to make his father think that she really loves his son. For his part, his father talks to him in Nepali, rather than their first language, Bhojpuri—the language of the minority—to make her believe that he hates the entire Bhojpuri part of him including his first wife, who can't utter a single correct sentence in Nepali.

"Are you going to school regularly?" his father says.

"Yes."

"Stay home after school and concentrate on your book. No fooling around."

Dilip listens silently.

As he lifts each morsel and forces it into his mouth, Dilip fears he may throw up. He wishes his father would quickly throw on his shirt and go back to work. How free he will be then to play outside or do whatever he likes!

In the present, Dilip replaces his handkerchief in his pocket and walks out the door. In the unfenced back yard, he slowly slashes through the weeds that stick through the corduroy into his calves. The window absorbs his eyes. The black wire netting is torn and twisted in a corner at the bottom, right where it used to be so. It looks much more torn and twisted and rusty, though. The unkempt ground stretching to the next house—also old and single-storied, but comparatively much stronger and well-kept—sucks at his heart. The gnarled mango trees still stand between these two houses, tilted, as if chasing one another. The trees have gone dry and black and look like ghosts. Where are the other children? he asks himself. Whom did he come to see in this other house? They must have grown as big and old as he. Will they recognize him if they get to see him? Will he recognize them if he gets to see them?

"Oh, there you are." The landlady hobbles over with two steaming cups.

"Thanks very much." He takes the cup. "Where's your son?"

"Oh, he's in Kathmandu, doing M. A. He's grown bigger than you. All your friends have grown so big you won't recognize them. Most of them don't live here anymore, though. You remember Sangita?"

"Sangita?" He sips from the cup.

"Yes, don't you remember? She used to live in that house," she points to the house.

The faint brown face of a small girl in a frock smiles at him.

"A couple of years ago, her father sold this house and went to live in Kathmandu. He didn't want to live here after her marriage."

"Is she married in Kathmandu?"

"No, in America. He's a doctor."

"Tell me about yourself. Are you married?"

He smiles bitterly. "Yes."

"It was so sad to hear about your father's death. But honestly, your father wasn't a good man. He left your mother for that slut. I knew all along that the slut was not going to stick with your father. That's the difference between a woman you marry and a woman that you pick up in the street."

Dilip didn't pick up Namrata in a street. It was a traditional marriage, though unattended by his father.

His father died last year. A couple of times Dilip ran into him around the market, but his father wouldn't so much as throw a glance at him. Simply because Dilip ran away from him at the age of nine to live with his mother.

 

His feet hurt on his way back. As a small child, he couldn't have walked so far, he thinks. But then it's not impossible. Once in a while he must have escaped from his father and stepmother and walked all the way to his mother. In the house—in his grandfather's house—where his father never visited his mother or sent her basic necessities, she lived like a prisoner, surviving on what the neighbors offered her out of pity. She waited and waited and waited for her son to show up just once.

He remembers sneaking down the street as a child. How hard it felt to approach this house and move past—a house where his mother birthed him and where she died saying to him, "I'll be with you even after leaving this body." Sometimes he'd sprint past. Other times, he would hide himself behind a wooden street pole near the gate and peep toward the upper floor window until his mother's face showed up, pale and sad. Sometimes his mother would catch him peeping. Then a smile would redden her face. She'd nod and beckon to him, cajoling, begging, with her smiles, with her tears. But as if trying to escape a racing wind, he'd hang behind the pole, peeping out, not responding to his mother's call. And finally, the only thing he'd know to do was to sprint out of her vision and walk back, heavy steps and a heavier heart, to his father's rented apartment. He used to worry his father would tie him up in a sack. His father never did that thing, though. All he remembers is that his father sometimes threatened neighborhood children that way. And he often imagined being tied up in a sack by his father. Dilip still doesn't know whether it was on his way to his mother's or on his way back to his father's that he got lost. But he feels sure that it was on one of such storm-blown trips between his father and mother that he got lost. And drifted away to that sweet house, where that sweet man and the sweet woman lived.

 

It's past five PM. Where is that house? His eyes begin to moisten. His search takes a circular turn.

 

About fifty yards from his house, his feet slow down again in front of a two-storied brick house. Prakash's children are chasing one another across the lawn screaming and yelling. The rusty tin-roof slopes steeply. The side of the narrow cement balcony stares at him, as if saying, "Do you remember me? Once I used to be wooden." The setting sun gives the yellow balcony a pleasant glow of ochre.

Prakash suddenly appears on the balcony. He's a medium-sized man with thinning hair and a round face, about five years older than Dilip. As soon as he catches Dilip's eyes, he waves and smiles. Dilip waves back, smiling, his heart filling with admiration and gratefulness. Prakash looks away, but Dilip continues to look in that direction.

Dilip and Prakash don't meet each other as often as before. When they pass in the street, they just smile or wave, and move on. There's no longer anything of common interest. Playing on the lawn has become a past thing, no longer suitable for their age. Besides, ever since he dropped out of college without completing BA, Prakash has occupied himself with looking after his ancestral farm land. Dilip has not seen his farm land, which Prakash told him once lies six miles east. All day Praksh is gone there; in the evening he hangs around with political activists, chatting with them at the main chowk of the city. Sometimes when he passes this group, Dilip overhears his friend telling a joke. Dilip loves the mock serious tone in which his friend delivers the joke and chuckles silently while the others squeal with laughter behind him. Each member of the group is so clever at cracking jokes and so capable of laughter. Dilip wishes he were like them. He laments he is not a good talker, whatever the subject. He doesn't blame Prakash for being formal and distant in his manners with him over the years. Like Prakash, his house also has changed—new walls, new colors of paint. Yet it's a house that has seen grandmother living with grandfather, father living with mother, and grandchildren chasing one another across the lawn screaming and yelling.

This small lawn was the playground for all the neighborhood boys. They used to play all sorts of games: football, volleyball, chess, and cards. Everyone liked Prakash and Prakash liked everyone. But Dilip felt that Prakash secretly liked him more than he did the others. Toward the end of the last game at dusk, Prakash would glance at him more and more, as if checking for something. When all the boys were gone, Prakash would whisper to him to go downstairs and wait under the balcony. He'd whisper so his parents didnít hear. After a few minutes, half a dozen corn-cobs would fall one after another right before Dilip on the grass with a series of light thuds. Prakash would look down with a smile and quickly disappear for fear of being caught by his parents.

Prakash had a kind heart. He knew Dilip was hungry, that his mother had nothing at home to cook for dinner.

 

Dilip's house is unpainted, two-storied—all brick, no wood. He pushes open the gate, pushes it back shut. The instant he flicks on the staircase light, an invisible tiger leaps over him from the landing. He struggles up the stairs. Flicks the door switch, walks into the turmeric light and flops on the edge of the bed. He lifts the remote from his side, switches channels, finally settling for a Hindi movie. He sighs and moans. It takes a while to realize that he's watching Pyasa, starring Guru Dutt, a man whose real life was as sad as the role he played in movies. Who committed suicide.

"Rice has got cold. May I warm the rice or would you like me to cook again?" Parvati asks from the door.

"I'll warm it myself. You can go home."

Dilip turns down the TV and stretches himself out on the bed. The rolls of student papers on the desk fill him with contrition. He wonders what excuse he is going to give to the principal. He tries to concentrate on the screen. Then his gaze slowly turns to the blue diary. Part of the letter sticks out like a goat's tongue after decapitation. In thirteen days, he has read it thirteen hundred times. He reaches for it again.

 

Dilip,

I hope you'll forgive me for what I'm going to do and won't come after me.

I've decided to leave you. I don't think I can ever be happy with you. You can't say that I haven't been a faithful and devoted wife.

I have done the best I could to please you. I thought you would change but I was wrong. I can't spend the rest of my life with a melancholic man.

Namrata

 

He crumples and flings it into the waste bin under the desk. It perches on the scraps of paper like a dead rat. He stares at the ceiling fan. The flickering light of the television plays off the spinning black blades. From the desk his mother stares at him without blinking. He waits for the cool air of the fan and the low television jabber to lull him.

His eyes close finally, and millions of tiny gray specks begin to assemble in sharp relief against the silent black space. As he begins to perceive everything, a sweet quiver passes through his heart.

It is a single-story wooden house with a tiled roof, perched high on three rows of tall, wooden posts, on a quiet brick-paved street. A young child drifts towards it in a soft drizzle. The brown-red cobblestones are soaked and feel soft to his bare feet. From the ditches on both sides, frogs croak in their gentle song.

A young man, tall and lean, notices him from the balcony and rushes downstairs, calling, "Oh, my God! There's a lost child on the street!"

The man lifts him into his arms and kisses him. The cramped dirt yard of the house squelches under his feet as the boy walks across it toward the stairs, clinging to the man's hand.

The man carefully walks him up the wooden stairs. Upstairs, a woman dressed in a red sari, probably his wife, showers Dilip with kisses. Afterward she brings him a white plate of rice and milk with sugar. As he eats hungrily, the man and his wife surround him talking in Bhojpuri about his whereabouts with utmost concern.

Dilip doesn't open his eyes. He strains his sleepy head a bit, waiting for the faces of the tall man and his wife to become clear.

 

Copyright©2005 Krishna Mohan Mishra