A paper kite, black with yellow stripes, dangled from the branches of the gulmohur tree, and a flock of agitated crows flew around it cawing. Some went in perilously close, others hopped restlessly on nearby branches, ready to take a shot, but for some inexplicable reason none dared to attack, not yet. Whenever there was a breeze the kite flapped and reared up, and the birds scattered with a protest.
Sasank sat with his mother and his wife on the veranda, watching the scene over a morning cup of tea. The lazy Sunday sun was hidden behind the clouds, and the three of them were grim as death. The ground underneath the tree was covered with a thick yellow blanket of flowers, where squirrels scampered about.
Watching them Sasank remembered how as children, to provoke their mother’s mock anger, he and his sister would jump onto the yellow sheet their mother was unfolding onto the bed at night.
Before his mother and his wife had awoken this morning, he had scattered a handful of rice puffs in front of the house. Once when talking about folk beliefs his father had mentioned that feeding the crows first thing in the morning would prevent many a domestic fight. Had he said anything about fights which had already begun? Sasank couldn’t remember.
“They don’t realize it’s just a kite,” he said, his voice thick with phlegm. “A paper tiger.”
His mother and wife remained stiff and silent. The fight last night had been short but sharp, the culmination of bitterness brewing over the past fortnight; like a long smoking log it had burst into flame.
“Of course once a man has been bitten by a snake he can be scared by the mere sight of a rope!” he added, and then, when there was no response from the ladies, wondered what kind of a stupid remark that had been. He had slept badly last night, waking up every time his wife went to the toilet. In the next room, his mother too had tossed and turned, her glass bangles clinking incessantly.
The huge chakunda rain tree, at a distance from the gulmohur, spread its leaves like a gigantic umbrella, blotting out the sky. Very little of the morning blue was visible through its thick foliage. Of late it seemed to attract a few stray dogs, which had taken to assembling underneath it. This morning they were quiet and watchful, perhaps keen to probe the crows’ disquiet. Among them was the one with spots, the one which for no reason had bared its sharp yellow teeth at his wife the other day as they were walking past it. He had jabbed the pointy tip of his steel umbrella into the animal’s flank, enraging his wife, an ardent animal lover.
“Time to give a call to the municipal dog-catchers,” he said. “They should do their work. Must remember to call them first thing tomorrow morning.”
His wife had perhaps momentarily forgotten her anger. “Strays are shrewd,” she said, with her tiny, pearly laugh. “They can smell the dog-catchers’ van a mile away. Before it can roll in to the block they’ll have scattered and hid.”
“Damn shrewd!” he readily agreed, silently praying for her to continue, now that the ice seemed to have been broken. No matter about what, stray dogs, crows, whatever. But it suddenly struck him that “shrewd” was one of those words that had been bandied about last night, with a worse ring to it than many four-letter words.
His wife clammed up, picked up the cups and walked off.
“Don’t bother,” he said half-heartedly. “Let me wash them.”
His offer didn’t even merit a backward glance. Each of her steps resounded like a slap.
A brave crow came flying toward the kite but changed course at the last moment. The others burst into a renewed frenzy of cawing, each in its own voice.
“A little courage and the paper tiger would have been torn!” he remarked.
His mother remained silent. He stole a sidelong glance at her. She had bags under her bloodshot eyes.
“You didn’t sleep well last night, did you?”
She let out a theatrically long sigh.
“How long will the crows carry on?” he asked. “Crows are clannish, aren’t they? They always gang up. If one of them sends out a call, hundreds respond right away.”
A bluebottle flew in from somewhere and began to bedevil his mother. She tried to slap it away but the fly proved as cunning as it was persistent. “Try me,” Sasank silently invited the insect. “Come and pester me. Leave Ma alone. Come settle on the tip of my nose; you don’t know how ticklish I feel there, but I swear I won’t swat you. Look, the poor woman needs a little peace; she didn’t sleep a wink last night.” The fly seemed to have taken a shine to his mother and, although he was not miles but only a hand’s breadth away, it wouldn’t even look at him. His mother fanned her face with the end of her sari, and a whiff of her scent of sweat and tobacco wafted over him. It revived him a little.
A crow on a dead branch, away from the others, began to call. It sounded different, like a shard skipping over the surface of water. A hopscotch of a call.
“Why, this one sounds so strange!” he commented.
His mother remained silent.
“Are you still mad at me?”
“You’re still angry, aren’t you?”
Her lips seemed to be hermetically sealed.
“You haven’t spoken a word all morning.”
She stretched out her legs and rested her feet on the railing, gently rubbing her right knee. Who said the old are different from kids? Sasank thought.
“Does it hurt?” he asked. After their fusillade of words at dinner, which had started and ended like a sudden unseasonal shower, his mother had abruptly stood up, banging her knee against the table.
She moved her leg away when he tried to touch it.
“No,” she grunted.
“But you’re massaging it.”
She didn’t reply.
The lonely crow cawed again, this time a long drawn-out cawing, sounding like a nutcracker at work.
“Good grief,” remarked his mother. “Why’s this one mocking?”
Distractedly watching a busy, pulsing line of ants snaking along the railing, he didn’t understand what she was saying. Who was mocking? And whom? Was it he, Sasank? Mocking Ma? He gave her a quick glance and looked away. Sometimes people make faces unconsciously. Some people talk to themselves out loud.
He felt her eyes on him. He waited.
“Is this the first time you’ve heard a mocking crow or what?” she said.
A sense of relief stole over him. The rusty lock on Ma’s mouth had opened and she was talking.
“Mocking crows? Do they really mock?”
“That’s what people think.”
“But why do they do that?”
“How do I know?”
“Who do they mock? Each other? Human beings? Other birds? God?”
“Ask the crows.”
“But Ma, what does it mean, a crow’s mocking?”
She stood up abruptly. “It foretells a fight.”
After his mother left, his wife came back with the newspaper and, settling into her chair, began to read. He looked up. If there’s God up above, he thought, He must be watching the drama with growing interest, He must be having a word of praise for how well we’re acting our parts. He might be clapping, though the sound of applause, even divine, would take thirty-three thousand million and three years to reach the earth. I, Sasank Mishra, am the male lead; I was battered by my mother and my wife last night. Mine’s a complex role, seemingly comic in the beginning. I must act like a bumbling buffoon until my mother and wife have spent their anger. And then it’ll be my turn to take umbrage at some silly little thing, and I’ll fly into a tantrum! I’ll give the ladies as good as I got. So if the audience is under any illusion about my innate goodness, my inherent innocence, my patience and my sadness, wait until Act Three.
“Did the newsboy push the paper under the door?” he asked his wife. “He didn’t ring the bell; I didn’t see him arrive on his bicycle. I’ve been out here the whole time.”
She didn’t answer.
“May I have the sports page, please?”
She folded the paper with a loud crackle. “Take it all. I’ll read it only once my lord and master’s done with it.”
“Oh no! Have the first look, please. What’re the headlines?”
She remained silent.
He craned his neck. There was an item on the semifinal match in World Cup soccer. He had found out the result of the match last evening, but reading about it was a different ball game altogether. Printed words had more magic.
“All right, don’t give me the paper. Just hold it up a little so I can read the back page.”
His remark fell on deaf ears.
He leaned over and flicked something from her shoulder. She looked up, surprised.
She turned her attention back to the paper.
“Too many ants. Only a while ago I saw a long line of them on the railing.”
She lifted her head to look at the railing. The ants had vanished.
“Are you still mad at me?”
There was no reply.
“I can see you are. You’ve never refused me the first look at the paper.”
She folded the paper and flounced off, depositing it in his lap in a crumpled heap.
Curtain, Sasank silently announced. Act Two is over. Dear audience, you’ve just seen the high point of a family melodrama.
Sasank wanted more tea, especially on a Sunday morning after a fight and little sleep. His mother was on her way to the toilet.
“Have another cup first, Ma,” he said. “This time I’ll add some ginger.”
“I won’t have any,” she said icily. “You two go ahead.”
“Don’t bother about us.” His patience was wearing thin. “I was asking about you.”
She walked off and banged the toilet door shut. It sounded like a slap.
“But I’ll make some for you,” he shouted after her.
After putting the kettle on the fire, he went back to the veranda. The crows, taking some respite from attacking the kite, were resting silently in the tree. Maybe a cease-fire had been unilaterally declared. Their cawing had subsided and now the twittering of smaller and gentler birds and the chattering of squirrels could be heard. His wife, the paper open in her lap, was staring up at the tree. What was she thinking about? He’d have loved to touch her arm but knew his “ant” trick wouldn’t work twice the same day.
“I’m making more tea,” he said. “With ginger.”
“I won’t have any.”
“Have a cup. Today’s Sunday.”
“I said no. Go ask your mother. She might be wanting some.”
“I was asking about you. Don’t bother about her.”
“Why I’m bothering is that, no matter what, the son’s always gold but the daughter-in-law remains an okra!”
“Okra? Why an okra? How quaint! Who ever did you get that from?”
“Who else?” she mocked.
“Oh no. Would she ever let such a pearl of wisdom, such profundity fall from her lips?” More mocking.
“You mean profanity.”
She remained silent.
“But why okra?” he mused aloud. “Why okra of all vegetables? Why not pumpkin Eggplant? Garlic? Is it because okra is easy to digest?”
There was a sudden breeze and the kite rose like a snake. The crows panicked.
He gave a forced laugh and suddenly remembered that was how his father’s laughter sounded. “No cause for panic. They should realize it’s just a square piece of black paper stiffened by thin bamboo sticks.”
She remained silent.
“Yes, just a piece of black paper and two thin sticks.”
“What do you have to say?”
“Ask the crows.”
“Ask the crows? That’s exactly what Ma said,” he dramatically remarked. “All right. Come on, you damned crows, answer this question. And it’d better be the right answer. Or else it’ll be poisoned sugar for you tomorrow morning.”
She gave a low throaty laugh. “Don’t forget to feed me some too. You’ll kill not just two, but several birds with one stone. No more problems.”
“No more?” he laughed. “Or just the beginning?”
She kept quiet.
“You’ll not rest in peace until you’ve had me put in jail, will you?”
She didn’t reply.
“Of course jail’s better than here. Much more peaceful. But there’s one big problem. Oh yes, a big, big problem!”
She looked at him.
“Newcomers are welcomed by being buggered.”
Her face creased in a smile.
Sasank instantly felt better. Nothing like a little levity, a little vulgarity to thaw out one’s wife. A fly flew across his face and he swatted it. Was it the same one that had bothered his mother earlier? “What really surprises me is how I manage to remain alive. What more do I have to go through before I die?”
“We’ll all die,” she said drily. “But I only hope and pray I die before you.”
“You first? Oh no, who’ll let you?”
“Not leave me in peace even to die?” There was a heavy lashing of sarcasm in her voice.
“Sometimes I wish I could vanish. Or become invisible and watch you people.”
“Do me a favor and keep your watching for your mother.”
“But I’ll die if I don’t see you.”
“Hey, you sound like somebody else.”
“Find out who. But why waste your energy?”
“Waste it? I’ve got plenty.”
“Save some for your mother.” But her voice was no longer so bitter. “Let me go away, leaving you and your mother in peace.”
“That’s funny, that’s exactly what Ma’s been saying. She wants me to leave her, bury her, as she says, back in the village, and live peacefully with my wife.”
She tried not to smile.
“Sometimes I get this great urge to run away from you both. But the question is to where. The Himalayas? That might be good, but too cold, and you know I can’t stand that. The forest? But where are there forests? They’re all gone. Though, mind you, I fear wild quadrupeds less than angry bipeds.”
She began to scratch at a patch of bird droppings on the railing. “The decision is yours.”
“Which decision? The Himalayas or the forest? Mother or wife?”
She remained silent.
“The other day I got a letter from my younger brother. He wrote that not taking a decision is itself a decision. I think I now know what he meant.”
“You look so sweet when you smile,” he said. “It’s hard to refrain from kissing you.”
She laughed and blew on the railing she had finished cleaning.
“Sometimes I get this great urge to find out what we were to each other in our last life.”
“You were my enemy,” she laughed, “and you thought you hadn’t tortured me enough.”
“So along I come in this life disguised as your loving husband, huh?”
Up on the gulmohur tree, two crows began to peck and claw each other. They fell to the ground with a thud, a tangle of feathers, beaks and talons.
He laughed. His wife too.
“I know what you’re going to say,” she said, “if it’s the crows you’re going to talk about.”
“If you can read my mind so well, if you know that no matter what we’ll cling to each other, since no one’s around why don’t you steal a little kiss?”
She blew him a kiss. “See how quickly I get over my anger!”
“Does it take me longer?”
“To tell the truth, you take longer to get angry and to get over it. Last time you took two days, five hours, thirty-three minutes and seventeen and a half seconds to get over your anger.”
A friend of his wife’s arrived and with a show of reluctance she left him to chat with her. This friend was very beautiful, but a bit of a snake in the grass, and he had never liked her. But right now she was a godsend. He wanted his wife out of the way for a while so there’d be time to improve his mother’s mood.
His mother was lying in bed browsing through a magazine.
“What’re you reading?”
“The latest issue?”
She closed the magazine and pushed it toward him.
“But this is an old one, Ma. Haven’t you read it before?”
“What’re you reading, a story or a poem?”
She turned on her side, her back to him.
She scratched her left foot. He had a feeling that it wasn’t itching at all.
“An interesting story?”
“What’s wrong with your foot?” He sat on the edge of the bed and placed her foot in his lap. “Let’s see.”
She pulled it away.
He pulled it back. It was as if they were fighting over a stone or a log and not her foot. “Wait a moment.”
“Nothing’s wrong with it,” she said. “Leave me alone.”
“You’re pushing me away?”
“Who am I to push you away? If there’s anyone being pushed away here it’s me.”
“Why, don’t you belong here?”
“Since when have I belonged? A woman doesn’t belong anywhere, and nothing belongs to her. As Manu said, before her wedding she belongs to her parents, afterward to her husband, in old age to her son.”
“Manu who? Manu Biswal of Gajarajpur? That miserable clown with the swollen legs? Why did you have to remember him on a sublime Sunday morning?”
“Manu the law-giver. Whatever’s written in the scriptures is right.”
The conversation was heading the wrong way.
“But Ma!’ he exclaimed, as if falling from the sky. “I’d plumb forgotten to tell you. You know what happened? As I sat watching the kite hanging from the tree, a huge raven, pitch black, vile-looking, flew toward it and flapped its wings so vigorously that the kite tore.”
“Good.” Her voice was suffused with a tinge of satisfaction.
“Good? Not at all. It was so beautiful. Come on out and see how pitiable it looks now.”
“What’s there to see?”
“Come on out.”
“Later. In the afternoon maybe.”
“By then there’ll be no trace of it. Now that it’s torn, the crows will pull at the bamboo frame and carry it away.”
Sasank virtually dragged his mother out to the veranda. She gave a glance at the kite and looked away at the squirrels. The conversation must be kept around the crows, he decided, anything about the damn birds. What else did he know about them? That it’s an ill omen to see crows making love. Hardly a topic he could raise with his mother. What about Kak-bhusandi, the devotee born as a crow? He expressed doubts that Lord Rama was an avatar, so the good Lord swallowed him. Inside the Lord’s stomach the crow saw millions of universes and his faith was restored.
“The crow might be an intelligent bird but that doesn’t stop it from picking at shit,” he said. “Maybe eating shit makes one intelligent.”
“How come it didn’t work in your case?” his mother said, with a bitter chuckle. “As a child you ate your own shit at every opportunity.”
Sasank laughed. Not because his mother was any less bitter but because they were talking, and about his childhood, too.
“Oh my God! Was I such a horrible shit-eating brat? Tell me Ma, did you or did you not spank me enough? In your place I’d spank such a child first thing in the morning and just before bed, as a matter of routine.” He moved closer and put his hand on her shoulder.
“What good would spankings have done?”
“You must be itching to give me a sound spanking sometimes. Tell the truth.”
“Spank you? Would I dare? You’re an adult, a big man. Doing a big job and earning money. Married, too.”
He let it pass.
“Didn’t I tell the truth?” she asked after a pause.
The torn kite was flapping in the breeze but no longer rearing its head. The crows, through with it, paid it no attention.
“Let me get back to my magazine,” she said, showing no sign of getting up. His hand lay across her shoulder like a dead snake.
“Ma, do you remember I had a high fever once? Father was away on tour. You had me on your lap the whole time.”
“Which time are you talking about? You had a fever and an upset tummy all through your childhood. I spent sleepless nights holding you on my lap and putting cold compresses on your head. And you’d bawl as soon as I put you down on the bed.”
“Was I such a little terror?
“Who’ll I tell it to?”
“There’s one incident I remember vividly. I had such a high fever I was delirious. Where’s my mother, I began to wail, bring me my mother. But I’m here beside you, son, you said. No, you aren’t my mother, I said. Who am I then? you asked. You’re my aunt, I replied. Since when did you have an aunt, you said, fear gripping you. Not one but seven aunts have I, I said, and all of them are in their own temples in this very town. You froze and began to moan that the fever had addled my brain. Just then our neighbor Aunt Bijoya arrived . . .”
“I remember her, the new second wife of Jagadish Babu. There was a huge age difference between the two. She’d come to town just a month or two ago . . .”
“As soon as she saw me she too . . .”
“She loved you a lot. She wanted me to give you away to her. She didn’t have a child of her own for a long time . . .”
“She too began to cry. You said you didn’t know what to do. She took me on her lap and begged you to go and sleep a while. Sister, she said, your eyes are swollen and red like a hibiscus. You’ll have a nervous breakdown if you stay awake the whole time. Leave your son with me, I’ll look after him and put cold compresses on his head until his fever comes down.”
“What a memory you have.”
“Who knows whether it’s memory or fiction!”
“As soon as Aunt Bijoya settled me in her lap I peed and vomited.”
“You don’t remember? She didn’t get upset. On the contrary, she burst out laughing . . .”
“She loved you as if you were her own. You spent most afternoons at her place. She had a way with you, she could make you fall asleep in minutes . . .”
“She laughed and said, look at this brat, he loves his mother so much that he was waiting to get onto my lap to pee and vomit! Bring me a stick somebody, let me give him a beating. That’ll cure him right away. Surprisingly enough, in less than half an hour I had broken out in a sweat, my temperature had dropped and I had recovered . . .”
“Quite likely. That was another remarkable thing about your fevers. They’d go away as suddenly as they appeared. Possibly some witch had put the evil eye on you. I used to call in an exorcist once a week to say incantations over you. You remember Mahadev the old exorcist?”
“I remember she’d dab sandalwood paste all over her body.”
“Oh yes, she couldn’t stand the heat!”
“Some days she’d coat me with it too.”
“I remember how you clung to her. It was quite a job to bring you back home. I remember getting angry with both of you sometimes.”
Sasank laid his head on his mother’s shoulder. Her neck was wet with perspiration. “Put your hand on my head,” he said, “I’ll always remain your son, Ma, no matter what.”
“I think children should always remain children and never grow up. They should stay kids until they die.”
“And kill their mothers with worries, huh?”
Sasank was the first to awake from the afternoon siesta. His wife and his mother were still asleep. He drank a glass of water, made a cup of tea for himself and went out on the veranda. The sunshine had paled and the dense chakunda tree had a different look, its leaves had folded and the blue of the sky filtered through the gaps.
He looked at the gulmohar tree and started. A crow dangled beside the mangled kite, entangled in its string. One of its wings was closed, the other spread like a Japanese hand fan.
The crow cawed desperately, flapping its wing, cocking its head and trying to snap the string. A couple of feathers were pulled out and spiralled down.
He watched them as they slowly fell. Black at the tips but white at the roots. As soon as one reached the ground, a squirrel came charging, lifting and examining it before tossing it away.
The crow cawed again, the desperation in its call unmistakable, and soon others came flying in, in twos and threes, until there was a crowd. They flew around the dangling bird, inquiring, consoling, commiserating.
Sasank rushed inside and awakened his wife and mother. “Come on out. Hurry before it’s gone.” He was sure that with or without help the trapped crow would soon free itself.
“Oh God!” his wife said. “How did the poor thing get all tied up?”
“It must have been flying around the kite fooling with it,” his mother answered.
As they watched, a crow flew in and started to pull at the outspread wing of the trapped bird.
“Why’s it pecking at the poor thing?” his wife asked.
“It’s trying to help,” his mother explained.
“If only we could find a long enough stick!” his mother sighed.
Sasank remained silent.
The trapped crow craned its neck and tried to get at the thread.
He watched the bird, suddenly realizing how normally his wife and mother were talking to each other, their rancor gone. He looked up. There were fluffy white clouds in the sky and the sun was setting.
“Soon the poor thing will tire itself out,” remarked his wife.
“That’s for sure,” his mother added.
So much feeling for a crow! he thought, suddenly bristling.
“If only we could get someone to climb the tree. We could pay him something,” his wife said.
“No way,” his mother remarked. “The crows would attack him.”
It was getting darker. Birds were returning to their nests, calling in several voices. The crows cluttering the gulmohar branches raised theirs in a raucous cacophony. The dangling crow made feeble attempts at freedom.
His wife inched closer to him and flicked something from his shoulder. “An ant,” she said, with a tiny laugh.
He wondered if she’d taken a leaf out of his book. “How do we set the poor crow free?” she asked.
He remained silent.
“Why don’t you go out,” she said, “and see if you can get someone to come climb the tree?”
“It’s already dark,” his mother said. “Let’s wait until tomorrow morning. Maybe we can ask the maidservant’s boy. Maybe he’d agree if we offer him a rupee.”
“All right,” his wife said. “Let’s wait until tomorrow morning.” She turned to her mother-in-law. “Ma, let me make tea.”
“Daughter,” said the old lady. “Let me do it.”
“Oh no, Ma! Shall I get you some snacks?”
“I haven’t digested lunch. Shouldn’t have taken a nap on a full stomach.”
“Same with me. I feel so heavy.” She turned to Sasank “How about you?”
He didn’t answer.
A free crow approached the captive one.
“Come on,” his mother exhorted the good Samaritan. “Snap the thread.”
The free crow flew away. The captive one let out a plaintive cry.
“Poor damned crow!” he said with a sigh.
His mother and wife looked up at him.
He kept silent.
His wife moved in closer and pressed her arm against his.
He recoiled as if from a live wire.