Fiction

Seeking Solace
- Priya Hajela

Seeking Solace

On December 22, 1932, mid-afternoon in the village of Sukho, a light snow fell, not quite enveloping, but just adding a little sugar dust to the pale brown landscape.  The buffalos, in for the winter, huddled inside their sheds beside the little stone houses of their owners. Sukho, a Pakistani Punjab village, sat on the northern edge of the state where the weather swung from extreme summers to freezing winters. Two boys, dressed in their tahmats and chaddars played outside, oblivious to the cold or snow.  A voice in the distance called every now and then; the two boys called back.  And then, the sound of an old bicycle tyre rolling down the rocky path, pushed along with sticks by the two boys, was the only sound heard in the vast valley.

Dilawar, eleven, and his frail younger brother Chander were just about a year apart. That’s what they called it back then, when a boy had asthma or weak bones or a hole in his heart or polio -- he was frail, couldn't go to school or play or swim in the river.  But Chander had none of those physical ailments.  He just slipped into a different plane every now and then, talking loudly, throwing things, screaming madly and tearing off his clothes.  Just as suddenly he would calm down, lie down and sleep.  He once slept for forty-eight hours without waking up. No food; bed wet with urine, but no amount of shaking would get him out of his slumber -- as if he had been drugged. They said his behaviour was  childish tantrums followed by exhaustion.

One day, when he was just thirteen, Chander went into one of his fits, now more coherent and sharper.  He went after everyone: his old grandfather for being lazy, his grandmother for trying to poison him, his mother for being a rotten cook, and father for being a nobody, even Dilawar, his favourite, for being ugly.  Then, with no warning, he ran, out through the little gate connecting the cactus hedge, on the mud path, straight towards the river.  Dilawar ran after him, but Chander was surprisingly fast, and he had had a head start.  When he reached the river, he looked back at his brother once, screamed something incoherent and jumped into the roaring waters before Dilawar could reach him.  The water swallowed him up quickly. There was no sign of his striped shirt when Dilawar reached the cliff’s edge.  He pulled off his own shirt and was about to jump in after his brother when he felt strong arms around his waist holding him back.  ‘Let him go, Dilawar.  He never should have been born.’ 

Dilawar struggled to break free.  His only brother couldn’t swim. The current was strong after the winter snow melted, water was freezing, rocks seemed sharper.  He let out a loud wail that ricocheted around the riverbed . 

Several years before Independence and the partition of India in 1947, the family moved east from Sukho, now in Pakistan, to Amritsar in Punjab, on the Indian side.  Dilawar went to college in Amritsar and got an Engineering degree.  He joined the Department of Irrigation, which maintained the eight major irrigation canal systems all across Punjab. Not a day went by when he didn't think about his little brother flying through the air and into the swirling waters below, the picture clear but the circumstances now a little hazy in his mind.  Should he have done more? Could he have done more?  Maybe his brother would have been happier if he had gone to school instead of sitting at home, watching the women of the house putting red chillies out to dry on large sheets, forcing visitors to walk gingerly between carpets of fiery red spice or churning butter in large wood bowls, moving the long churning stick back and forth rhythmically, or sewing thick quilts filled with fresh cotton, little seeds still attached in places and soft velvet covers that little children would stroke as they fell asleep. Or milking the buffalos as they swatted flies with their tails, inevitably slapping one of the women on the cheek with the tail. Or preparing the evening meal, the smell of roasting onions wafting out of the dark and dingy kitchen, the sizzle as  tomatoes were thrown into the pot at just the right time.  The problem was that with all this going on, poor Chander could only sit and watch, not help; he wasn’t allowed to.  He was always in the way. 

When the other children came home, it was time for homework or rowdy play outside, Chander, once again, was excluded.  Dilawar remembered clearly, the look on Chander’s face when he had asked to be allowed to play, hopeful yet petulant, cheeks flush with desperation and eagerness and the transformation that took place when he heard the answer.  Most times, Dilawar himself had to do it – say no.  ‘You don’t like to lose,’ he would tell him.  ‘You always want to bat, even after you are out.  You start fights and because of you, even I won’t be able to play.’  But Chander would beg and plead with him.  ‘You can convince them, I’m sure you can.  They all like you.  I promise I won’t fight.’

 ‘If you keep asking, then you are not my brother any more and I will not love you’.  That would always quiet Chander down, make him walk away into the distance, sit alone on a log and watch the play.  Dilawar took his head in his hands and cried like a baby, each time that little stray thought entered his mind.  How could he have said those words to his brother, the boy who only had his big brother on his side?  Sometimes, the remorse consumed Dilawar. He couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, couldn’t speak or eat.  He felt he was under a blanket of snow, with more falling steadily above him. He could feel each flake settling upon the previous, gentle and soft but weighing him down.  He felt Chander’s presence all around him.  He felt his brother’s hand on his shoulder, his breath in his ear.  He heard his voice. Let’s go out and play, it said.  He told his wife it was migraine and she dutifully drew the curtains and supplied him with cool water and aspirin.  It passed, eventually, but it always came back.

More time passed. Dilawar sat in his office, at his desk, on one end of a floor, silent but for the occasional tea boy clanking little glasses of tea in his metal cup holder. Dilawar sat deep in thought.  He thought about his girls, Meera and Sunita.  Meera had made her way to a medical residency at Columbia University in America. All alone in that cold, lonely place but she had done it, with no help or even encouragement from him.  In fact, he wondered how she would survive.  How had she got the inspiration to attempt something so outrageous, he wondered.  Where did she find the strength?  Surely not from her mother, because he knew he had married a weak woman. Then? From him?  And what about Sunita?  Where had she got her genes from?  Was she like his brother?  His wife didn’t want to talk about it.  Every house had one of those, she said.  We have to do penance for the wrongs we have done in our previous births, she said.  Dilawar wanted to cover his family with a big blanket, a big blanket of moss, cool and bright green, that showed a nice outline of everything but hid the details -- the hotbed, where all the demons lived and grew.

As Dilawar sat contemplating his life, Sunita walked in. He almost didn’t recognize her, his daughter, sixteen, ten years younger than her older sister, simple and steady Meera, looked tall and confident, like a model on a ramp. She was dressed in a short tunic and tight pants, her scarf wrapped around her neck like a cravat, not covering her chest as it should have.  She walked in, bouncing a little on her feet, as if she had high heels on.  He looked down and let out a short breath. She had on her usual flat shoes.

‘It’s all done,’ she said, her long hair hanging loose, but flipped back and pinned to one side.

‘What’s done?  What have you done?’

‘You know those men you were concerned about.  I took care of things’.

‘What men?  What did you do, Sunita?’

Slowly it came back to him.  She had probably heard him talking to his wife, Savitri, after a day of work.

As he had sat at his desk, contemplating the big pile of open cases, two smartly dressed men had walked up to him.  The older man had some artfully placed white hair across the front of his head; the rest was black as the ink in the pot on Dilawar’s desk.  The younger man, tall and well muscled, wore a large diamond ring on his left hand ring finger. 

‘Myself Bakhtiar and this is my son-in-law, newly married, Jeevan Singh.  Our farms are merging now.  The irrigation system has to be updated, you see.’

Dilawar listened.  He had received the file from his supervisor.

‘Approve the plans by Friday and you'll get another one of these,’ the father-in-law had whispered as he slid a new Samsonite briefcase to Dilawar's desk, from the far side, where it was not visible to anyone in the office.  Dilawar had nodded mutely. A bead of sweat had rolled from his neck, down his back, all the way to  his pants.  On Friday, he had got the job done, but when the landowners came to give him the second briefcase, he had refused and asked them to take back the first one as well.

‘I got the briefcases back. They should have been yours, shouldn’t they?  After all, you do all the important work here.’

‘Sunita, please... I’m going to fall down right here and die of a heart attack. I don’t know what I’m going to do.  I don’t take bribes.’ His voice dropped to a low whisper.  ‘I never have. If you want to help me, please take those briefcases back. NOW.’

‘Papa, don’t get so angry.  They were happy to give them to you.  They have so much money, it doesn’t matter to them.  And we have none.  See, I bought these new clothes with some of the money.’

Dilawar ran out of the office, jumped on his scooter and raced home.  He rushed into the house to find his wife sitting in her room with the two briefcases before her, counting the money.

‘Have you gone mad, along with your daughter?’

‘But Dilawar, this money will buy us so many things.  A refrigerator, a...’

‘Quiet. Now. How much money has she spent?  I have to give this back.’

Dilawar opened his big wooden cupboard, searched under the shelf lining for the key to a smaller drawer and opened it, with shaking hands.  His forehead was wet; little drops of sweat dripped down the sides of his face and on to his shirt.  He pulled out a small sheaf of currency notes from the drawer, counted out the right amount, added it to the briefcase, jumped back on his scooter and raced down the road.  He rode as fast as he could, dodging the traffic in the city and then out to the gravel road by the canal.  He couldn’t help glancing over at the water in the canal, flowing through the impressive concrete-lined embankments.  His little scooter skidded on the rocky road, but he straightened it and rode on, the two briefcases balanced between his feet on the rubber footrest. He raced through the open gates of Bakhtiar’s farmhouse.  The road, as he entered the gate turned to smooth black top, lined with tall Ashoka trees and green lawns.  The guard at the gate ran after him, but gave up as Dilawar reached the front door. He pulled the big rope and heard a loud clanging inside.  The door opened and Bakhtiar himself stood before him, with neat scotch in a high ball in hand.

‘Welcome, my dear Sir, welcome,’ he said.

‘Please take your money, I don’t want it.  Your job is done.  There is nothing more to be said.’

‘But your daughter, pretty girl, she had many things to say to me.’

‘What?  What did she say?’

‘She told me you had sent her.  After all, you could not take the money in the office.  Very smart man, Sir.  I did not think you were so smart.’

‘I am not smart ... I mean, I am, but not in that way. Oh, never mind.  Here is your money.’

Dilawar ran out before anything more could be said.  His head felt like it was filled with feathers, light and fluffy.  He rode his scooter back, humming softly, riding with the bumps, not fighting them.

Sunita walked back home not long after her father raced out. Her mother came rushing to the door.

‘Your father, he is so angry, with me and with you.  You told me he had asked you to get the briefcases.  I am so stupid.  Why did I believe you?’

‘You are a stupid cow.  You need to be beaten for your stupidity.  Maybe that’ll knock some sense into you.’

Savitri had seen Sunita rise to these explosions before, but she had never threatened her own mother.  She shrank into the corner, mumbling prayers under her breath, wishing Dilawar would return. 

Sunita hovered over Savitri who was slowly making her way to her idols, her prayers and intonations getting louder and louder.

‘Your Gods and Goddesses can’t help you.  You should know that by know.  Why else would they give you me? They want to teach you a lesson.  Let’s ask them, shall we?’

Sunita picked up Savitri’s beautiful idols one by one, asking each one the same question, ‘Are you going to help her?’ at which the clay, metal and stone figures stayed mum, while Savitri shivered, now crouched down on the floor on her haunches. 

‘Put those down, Sunita’, a calm voice called out from the doorway.  Dilawar was home.  He knew that screaming at her would accomplish nothing.  Savitri grabbed her idols out of Sunita’s hands, dusted them with the end of her long scarf and put them back in their place, mumbling prayers and ringing a little bell as she did.  They had helped her, hadn’t they?

Dilawar continued to talk to Sunita in a calm, gentle voice, till she s sat down, exhausted, then lay down right there on the sofa in the living room, eyes wide open, staring at nothing, hands clenching and unclenching, toes flexing, as if she was warming up before her next bout.  She stared at a collage of photographs on the wall.  Dilawar had collected them over the years, from friends and relatives who had once lived in Sukho.  Most memories had been lost during the Partition; Hindus and Sikhs had left Pakistan with almost nothing.  Many had grabbed money, jewelry, photographs and other memorabilia, but had then lost the glossy paper images in old houses with leaky roofs, closets with holes big enough for rats to get in or in small fires that broke out regularly because hookahs overturned and set the hay floors alight. 

Dilawar’s collection included sepia tinted pictures of their village, their old stone house, and his personal favourite, a family portrait.  His father and mother, his father’s three brothers and their wives and his father’s parents, the men all seated, the women standing behind them, heads covered, some with eyes averted, others staring right at the camera.  All were dressed in warm chaddars and shawls for behind them stood the mountains, their peaks covered with snow, a reminder that winter was upon them.  The children, two per couple, sat cross-legged on the ground, as fidgety as the adults were still.  One sat on his haunches, another had leaned over to pull his sister’s braids, yet another’s  eyes were closed and still another had his mouth wide open.  The one who stood out, and the one Sunita was staring at, was young Chander, Dilawar’s younger brother.  Unlike the rest of the children, Chander sat at his father’s feet, flanked by his big brother, protected from the unruly cousins.  He stared straight at the camera, unabashed, naked, his eyes still and calm, safe, at least for that moment.  Dilawar noticed a flicker  in that frame.  He looked away and looked back and saw a movement again.  Chander’s image had changed. He still stared right through the glass, at him, but his hands were now joined before him, as if in prayer, a prayer for his young niece perhaps.

‘Papa, will you take care of me like you took care of Chander Chacha?’ 

Dilawar was startled.  He had spoken about his brother but only to Meera.  Sunita must have been listening.

‘Yes, Sunita.  Better, much better, I hope.’

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