Just a Story 

It was a hot day, very hot, one of those when, as old women say, eagles give up hatching eggs and vultures drop down from sky-heights to seek shelter under bushes. The midday sun seemed to have stopped in its tracks -- a proverbial lance and a half high, it appeared -- but one could scarcely see it, for a wild wind raged across the land raising clouds of dust high over the scattered mango trees. The wind had started early that day, and by now it bore down from all corners, hissing and screeching, throwing up columns of sand, whirling through stubby fields shorn of their crops. In its rage it tore off branches from the acacia trees, thorny and leafless, that lined the treks cutting across the desolate plain. The sky was the colour of the earth, and the earth was the colour of death, and a fiery wind ruled over the four directions.

In this raging landscape there was no bird or beast to meet the eye, and of humankind there were only two, two lonely travelers, dragging their feet through the crumbling ruts of their separate paths. They struggled in the same direction where a huge banyan tree shimmered in the haze, and as they turned and twisted forward they could catch occasional glimpses of each other -- tired glances of vague comprehension, slow appearances from behind cindery bushes and gnarled mango trees. They were by themselves, the two, each on a path of his own, stumbling forward, toward the distant shelter.

One was a young boy, thin legged, wearing a ragged dhoti that came only to his knees and a buttonless shirt, its overlap secured by strings. Around his head was wrapped a thin scarf, one end of which he had placed across his face to escape the dust. He walked barefoot, and on his shoulder he carried a bamboo staff with a small bundle and a pair of old shoes hooked to its top.

The shoes were for use in the city where he was going; he never wore them in the village or in the fields. At one time they had belonged to his father, who used to soak them in mustard oil to soften the leather; now the dust of many years covered them and couldn't be scraped off. His father had left them behind when he quietly went away one summer night, leaving him an infant with his mother. Now it was his turn to leave the village, but he left in the morning and did not forget to take the shoes.

When he caught sight of the other traveler, he thought:

"Thank God there's someone else out on the road. Maybe he'll have a rope with him. Not many can be as stupid as I was, forgetting to pack the rope while carefully bringing the pot! Had I a rope I could've drawn water from that well two miles back and quenched my thirst. But I had to be so dumb! Birds are better off -- they don't need a rope. They can fly down into the well and find a foothold on some broken brick. But we're helpless without a rope.

"...No, no. This is not the end of the world. It is not the Judgment Day. The sun is not a lance and a half high. There are no angels here, scattering God's wrath over the land. It is dust and not ashes that fills my eyes, and it is only my feet and this wind that raise the dust. Except for that man far away I am alone on this path, quite alone. And he treads his own separate path. I am neither preceded nor followed by a multitude. I am alone...

"God, this wind is like a tongue of flame, it sucks the marrow out of your bones. Why did I set out in such awful weather? I should've stayed on until the first monsoon. Though there would've been no sense in leaving then. There's always plenty of work after the monsoon starts, and plenty to eat, too. Who leaves during the rains -- not any farmer, at least. It's these summer months that are harsh. They shrivel you to death. One gets hardly a mouthful at meals. That's when one must make a decision.

"...It is a rough journey, with thorns on the paths and burning sands; no shade either to hide from that blazing disc in the heavens. No shelter and no company. I am a lone traveler...

"Santu's son, Kubre, he went away last year, and when he came back at the Spring festival, he was wearing a linen shirt... with real plastic buttons. Said he was pulling a ricksha in the city... brought him enough to live on, and more. He's not much older than me, maybe a year... maybe a little more. But now he wears a linen shirt and smokes bidis. I don'teven have another dhoti besides this torn one.

"...This road leads onward. It skirts that tree shimmering in the distance and continues. What lies beyond that tree, I do not know. I only know what I left behind...

"She must be crying even now. She was crying when I woke up this morning, long before Taje's rooster called out. She was busy near the fire making rotis for my journey. When I came back from the pond she was still crying, and her tears hadn't stopped when I touched her feet to leave. She wouldn't come with me to the boundary of the village, but she must have changed her mind and followed me, for when I turned the corner at Jumman Baba's grove I caught a glimpse of her sari. She stood in the shadows of the old temple, with two or three other women and the old priest. She has a habit of crying. If the crop's bad, she cries; if it's good, she cries just the same. When I was seven and she took me to Jumman Baba's tomb she cried even while filling my mouth with sweets. I wouldn't be surprised if she cries when I return -- that would be just like her.

"...And yet I am not concerned about my ignorance, for there are many things that I do not know. I do not know the time of the next eclipse; nor do I know the exact moment when this sun will turn cold in its path. But I am not worried. I am walking; I can feel the dust in my eyes and taste it on my tongue. I know I am alive and moving forward, and that is enough knowledge for me. I do not sit in judgment on anyone...

"I don't think she believed me when I promised to return with the monsoon. But I will... with the very first shower. A farmer's place is behind his bullocks; he should be there when the dongra comes pouring down. I ought to have enough savings by that time, at least enough to get the bullocks released from mortgage. Thank God, the field is still ours. She would've mortgaged it too, just to keep me home, but I didn'tlet her. Anyway, now everything is going to be all right. It's only a month and a half until Asadh, but perhaps it won't rain, as they fear, until Sawan. That would give me two whole months. I should be able to save forty-five rupees in two months. Kubre said he was making more than two rupees a day, some days even five rupees. He's no bigger than me. I can pull a ricksha as soon as he can. Why, in two months, I might even save enough to buy a door for the house. Without a door a house is no good, for without it you roast in the sun and get soaked in the rain, and in winter you might just as well be sleeping under a tree."

Then the boy's feet crossed the banyan's shadow and for a moment he was blinded by the dark shade.

The other traveler was an old man, bent and stumbling, slapped around by the raging wind. When he caught sight of the boy he thought:

"Idiot, what an idiot! What's he doing being out on such a day? It's worse than the Day of Judgment. I can feel the sand burning through the soles of my shoes.

"Where do you think you're going, stupid boy? These young kids... itching to rush out into the world, all of them. They're always in some hurry.

"I bet you forgot to bring along your rope and pot, that would be just like you -- and my bad luck! Can't say it's been my lucky day, dropping my pot in that well. But what could I do? I wasn't being careless -- it's my old age that my hands shake. I tied the knot the best I could, like all the other times. But this time the pot fell off. So? Not my fault. I still have the rope... Like hell! What good is a rope if you don't have a pot? Let's just hope the idiot there had the sense to bring along his.

"Another three miles, then the big city. That's what the man said in that village: three miles beyond the big banyan tree. Then I can rest for a while. It's not wise to travel in this weather. I must wait until the first shower of the monsoon, then I can go on.

"But... maybe I won't need to go on by that time. Not if I strike good in the big city. I might find my presence is needed there and decide to stay on. Why not?

"Damn this heat... That banyan there, it somehow looks familiar. Can't recall passing through here, though... But then I might have... a long time ago. What do I remember of the past? It's all so far away, anyway. And I've been to so many places and passed through so many plains. I'd ask that boy the name of his village, that might...

"Hold on -- think it over. Perhaps you shouldn't encourage him by asking questions. He'd most certainly try to rouse your sympathy and hang on to you. No, no, no; that won't do at all. It's bad enough now -- with my increasing years -- who wants to make it worse by picking up a brat? Not me, not when I'm on my way to a new city. There might be something there just right for me. It won't help then to have this boy on my hands. No. I mustn't talk to him much... just ask him if he has a pot. I do hope he has one. You never know with these kids, they're all so ignorant. And this one looks like a real dolt. Look at the idiot, he's carrying his shoes on his staff - -rather burn his feet than spoil the shoes! What an idiot!"

The old man's feet crossed the banyan's shadow, and for a moment he was blinded by the dark shade.

After they had finished their separate meals and shared the water from the ancient well under the tree, the boy and the old man lay down to rest in the shade. Soon they were fast asleep, and in their sleep each had a dream.

The boy saw

A beautiful woman, dressed in clothes of gold and covered with jewels, came and stood in front of him, then spoke to him in a soft voice, "I'm the spirit that lives in this banyan tree. I can help you, if you promise to help me in return. I'm starved, and there is only one way to satisfy my hunger; you must strike that old man, then let him bleed here at the roots of the tree. His blood will satisfy my hunger. In return, I'll see to it that all your wishes are fulfilled in the city, that you get a good job and earn enough to return to your mother and your field. What I ask is not difficult. He's an old man; one good blow will take care of him. And you may keep his belongings. Only one blow with that rock and you'll have everything you want."

The boy smiled and turned over in sleep: dreams seen during the day can be so strange.

The old man saw

An old woman, covered with rags, her teeth curling over her lower lip and her feet reversed, came and stood before him, then spoke to him in a wheezy voice, "I'm the spirit that lives in this banyan tree. I can help you, if you promise to help me in return. I'm starved, and there's only one way to satisfy my hunger: you must smash open that boy's head, then let him bleed here at the roots of this tree. His blood will satisfy my hunger. In return, I'll see to it that all your desires are fulfilled in the city. Do as I tell you and you'll find a great opportunity waiting for you there. Your travels will come to an end and you'll find it possible to settle down for good, in comfort and security. What I ask is not very difficult -- he's only a boy; one blow with that rock will suffice. Then you can have all the things you want."

With a start the old man woke up.

Everything was so quiet. Nothing moved under the banyan tree. There was no sound except for the moaning and hissing of the wind and the wild thumping of the old man's heart. The plain was ablaze under the fire in the sky, but the shade was like a dark cavern in which gnarled roots and hanging branches huddled like mourners. The boy was fast asleep, lying on his side, his head resting on his little bundle of provisions. Creeping forward on hands and knees, the old man peeked over the boy's shoulder. His eyes were closed and a smile flickered over his face. Swiftly the old man turned around and picked up the piece of rock lying near him on the ground. His hand swung upward, shaking slightly from the weight of the rock, then came down with a thud. Not a cry escaped from the boy's mouth; his head rolled over as blood gushed out from the shattered temple and slowly flowed toward the tortured roots of the banyan. In a flash the old man snatched the boy's little bundle away from the blood's path. For a moment his fingers struggled with the knot, trying to unravel it, but the knot was stubborn and he had to tear the bundle open with his teeth. Rotis and parched grain and pieces of brown sugar fell into the dust, but the old man paid them scarce attention. He pulled out the little brass pot and tucked it away among his own things.

Overhead the thick branches swung back and forth and the greasy leaves seemed to clap in delight. The old man looked up into the deep, black and green shadows, and bowed his head for a moment in supplication. Then, filled with anticipation and renewed strength, he picked up his staff and his bundle and hurried out on the blazing path. But after only a few steps he stopped, and ran back under the tree. Near the boy's still body lay his stick and the old pair of shoes. They were only faintly spattered with blood, and the old man quickly wiped them clean with a leaf. He then removed his own battered pair and put on the boy's. The new shoes pinched his feet for a few steps, then the felt all right. Soon the old man was striding on, unharmed by the hot sand and thorns. Only three more miles, then he could rest for all time.


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