Afternoon in Malabar
Short story by Pooja Nair
The weather was humid that day and the trees restless. Vasu my older brother, sat on the balcony ledge, swinging his legs. Achan our father, had forbidden us from sitting there. He leaned far out, seemingly to look at the clouds right above our roof. I looked away so he would stop.
“It’s the last day before school. Let’s do something, let’s go to the river,” he proposed.
Achan worked at the local newspaper and had been very busy with the elections. Normally, he took us to the river on Sunday mornings but today he had to go to the office.
“Abhi will look for us and then wake Amma if he can’t find us,” I said.
The weather was changing fast and I was skeptical about going to the river without Achan, but once Vasu had an idea it was impossible to change his mind.
“Well, let’s take him too,” Vasu offered.
Vasu and I were only a year apart and Abhi was seven, five years younger than me.
I was wary of Vasu’s ideas. Last summer, we had made a bonfire, unfortunately a breeze spread the fire to a large 15-foot haystack next to it. The flames rose high and licked the tall stack and then part of the wooden boundary fence. When Achan returned home there was only a large blackened area on the ground left behind. Achan was very angry with Vasu and me. Even Amma receded and did not come to our rescue.
“I thought at least you Kamal, had some sense. A man should not have to leave home every day worrying about what his sons will burn down,” Achan had said to me later. He was decisive in both his punishments and encouragements. If he found out we went to the river on our own, much less with Abhi our younger brother, he would definitely thrash us.
“You can’t swim in the river, can you?” Vasu asked. “It’s not like our pond. You can't float, you have to really swim.”
He was goading me but I couldn't resist. “Of course, I can swim.”
“Guess who this is?” Vasu was imitating me floating – eyes closed, an exaggerated pretend smile and arms out.
“Not funny,” I said. Vasu was already thudding down the wooden stairs, to look for Abhi in the ground level rooms. A swim in this heat wouldn't be so bad, I thought. I got up and ran after him. A peal of thunder sounded far away, but I heard it under my own ribcage.
When he was a baby, Abhi almost died once because he did not know to breathe well. I always wondered how Achan knew to name him Abhi which means the beloved one, not the strong one. But what does it matter, the meaning of a name, it is just a remembered sound to summon.
“Abhi, Abhi,” we called softly as we ran through the house looking for him, not wanting to wake Amma from her afternoon nap. We peeped into the room and looked around. Abhi’s drawing book was on the floor but he seemed to have wandered off. Abhi had half sketched the picture of a boy with a cloud or a thought above his head, seemingly anticipating the rest of our day. The boy had unnaturally long fingers pressed to his head. Odd but a good drawing, especially at his age – I thought. Amma was still sound asleep as we tiptoed out.
“Where can he be?” Vasu said.
We heard a little movement. He was sitting behind one of the pillars of the sit-out.
“There he is. We’ve been looking for you,” I said.
Abhi looked up, surprised that we had been looking for him. He liked being included in our games but Vasu had shooed him away all through our holidays. I noticed he was wearing one of my old pair of shorts, but they were still too big for him. Amma must have had to put a stitch or two at the waist for them to fit him.
“Why are you staring at those stupid ants?” Vasu said.
Abhi was good at noticing things, I only discovered the things he observed when I later saw his drawings. Vasu put his foot in the middle of the path of the row of ants that Abhi was watching, sitting on his haunches.
“You are stupid, you’re killing them,” Abhi said trying to kick his foot away.
“What did you call me, you idiot?” Vasu said, holding on to his arm, shaking him roughly. “Say sorry now or I am going to box you.”
“Abhi, we are going to the river, but you can’t tell anyone. You will have to walk fast because we have to be back home before Achan,” I said.
Abhi was unsure, he was still annoyed with Vasu, “I’ll ask Amma.”
“No, she’s sleeping, don’t wake her,” Vasu said. “But she said you can come.”
“Yes, she said you can,” I lied.
The three of us set off. The clouds had darkened already, closing in on the day. As we walked, Abhi lagged some distance behind. He had to pull up his shorts every few steps. I felt a drop or two of rain but kept going towards the river.
The trees grew shorter and the path narrowed before it suddenly opened to the stunning sight of a large abundant vigorous river. A formation of birds was flying homeward in unison closer to the water than the sky. From a few steps away the river looked green as it reflected the closely grouped coconut trees leaning out of its sides. Closer still, the water was clear and as we waded in, we could see the rounded rocks that Abhi collected at the bottom. There was no sign of the rain yet, though there was an occasional rumble. Vasu and I took off our shorts and shirts and jumped in with whoops. The cool water was a welcome respite from the heat.
Mutti our grandmother, used to say that even a river you lived next to all your life was a new one on each visit, as it constantly renewed itself. This was certainly true today. The river felt different, like I was swimming in it for the first time.
We were doing somersaults already when Abhi caught up to us and stood on the bank. Achan had only taught him to swim in the pond where there was no current.
“Come in here, Abhi,” I said. “The water is fantastic.”
Swimming to the right with the current was easy and in no time I was some distance away. The river was rising to meet the windy conditions. Achan had warned us to always keep to the right side, as there was an eddy towards the left. The little whirlpool looked innocuous enough, but when the current was strong, it could be dangerous. A slight drizzle started and it was a sensory delight – the sight of the hurrying birds, the sound of the rain, the water and breeze against my skin and the fresh earthy smell of first rain. I closed my eyes and did my favourite thing – I floated on my back in the water.
It looked like it was dusk but it was probably no more than 4 p.m., there was enough time to get back home, to get changed and pack our school bags for tomorrow, well before Achan was back. Vasu did have good ideas, I thought. The way to the river was easy and Abhi liked to be with us, it did not really matter that we had not told Amma.
I don't know how long it was, but when the drizzle seemed to get stronger, I looked back. I could see Vasu in the water. Abhi had taken off his shirt and was wading in too. He was picking the rounded rocks from the shallow river bottom. They all looked the same to me but only some rocks made the cut for Abhi’s collection. He disappeared underwater for a moment or so each time he bent to pick a rock. I was feeling a growing unease as he seemed to be straying towards the left. I called out to him and Vasu but my voice was lost in the louder sounds of nature.
Abhi’s feet were off the ground. He was thrashing weakly towards some stone of perceived perfection. Suddenly his body turned a full 360 degrees. He was being dragged by the eddy. He was trying to push himself above the water but seemed to disappear further underwater. Only his hands and palms were visible now.
My throat was constricted and I was not able to call out to Vasu for help who was oblivious. I put my head down and started swimming back. The current pushing against me was strong. I could hear my heart thumping in my ears. My arms were hurting from the effort. As I got closer, the silvery blue breadth gave no clue of the recent struggle the river had witnessed. I screamed his name and dove underwater into silence.
I was looking for Abhi, so I expected to find him. Even so, I was amazed to see his small shoulders at the bottom, his soft brown hair swaying like the mossy weeds. He was already some distance away, but the river was only six or seven feet deep here. I grabbed Abhi’s shoulders to haul him up. As I broke through the surface Vasu saw us. He helped me carry Abhi to the river bank.
A tall figure was running towards us. It was Chandu, he worked in our farm and his house was not far from the river. I cannot remember the words of urgency that were exchanged. Chandu turned Abhi on his belly. He pumped water out of him. Vasu and I were on our knees, watching. To our relief, Abhi revived coughing out water. His eyes were closed and his body was shuddering. He was still gripping a rounded rock in his right hand. I held his shoulders and shook him calling his name. He looked at me but did not answer. He was breathing in short shallow gasps.
I helped Abhi put on his shorts and shirt under the tree. His arms felt stiff but he allowed me to bend them into the sleeves of his shirt.
“He’s caught a fright,” Chandu observed. He looked up at the sky. “There will be lightning. I will walk you home.”
Then just like that, the drizzle became a downpour. Chandu picked up Abhi and started walking in long strides away from the river. Abhi’s pale hands were around Chandu’s tanned neck. Vasu and I quickly clothed ourselves and ran to keep up with Chandu.
“We can go home from here,” Vasu said when we reached Chandu’s home. We were worried that Chandu would come with us and tell Achan about our escapade.
“Okay but go home right away,” he said firmly as he put Abhi down.
The rain would have slowed Achan too. If we walked fast, we would be fine. I held on to Abhi’s limp hand as we hurried back.
Achan’s umbrella was not at the door.
As we entered home, Vasu said, “Let’s not tell Amma.”
Luckily, Amma was taking clothes down from the line at the back of the house. She had forgotten to remove the drying clothes before her nap and now they were all getting wet again in the rain. We quickly ran up the wooden stairs to our rooms to change.
I looked at the mirror. With my dry clothes and neatly parted hair, there was no trace of the afternoon at the river. But my heart was still beating fast.
Amma had heard us thudding up the stairs and called out, “Abhi. Abhiiii. Are you upstairs? Vassuuuu? Where were you?” She sounded annoyed.
Vasu went to the top of the stairs and replied, “Yes Amma, coming.”
I went to Abhi’s room. He was in his bed, lying down on his side, knees pulled up facing the back of the room. I put my hand on his shoulder but he did not turn towards me. His skin felt hot under my touch.
“Are you okay Abhi, did you get hurt when you fell?” I asked him.
He did not reply but I couldn't see any cuts on his hands or legs.
“Let’s go, Kamal.” Vasu had rushed in. “What’s wrong with him? Is he hurt?”
Abhi did not answer. “No, I don't think so,” I said.
“Tell him he can’t tell Amma, okay, she’ll be mad at us.”
“You said so already, Vasu. You go downstairs, I’ll come with Abhi.”
“What do I tell Amma?” Vasu asked. But did not wait, he was already running down.
“It was a nice drawing, Abhi, you have to finish that don't you.” No reply.
I walked around the bed to the other side. He was awake.
“Let’s go downstairs,” I insisted again.
“I couldn’t breathe Kamal, it was so dark,” Abhi said quietly.
When he said that I felt very unpleasant, like there was a spreading heat in my chest. “Its okay, that’s how everyone learns to swim,” I said quickly. “That’s how even Achan learned. Why did you go after those rocks? You’re always collecting stupid things. How many rocks do you have now? Did you remember to bring the ones from today? Did you see it’s pouring outside? Good thing we got back before dark.”
Abhi listened to my chattering, he looked tired. He just closed his eyes.
“That’s right Abhi, why don't you sleep. I’ll call you when it’s time for dinner.”
I wanted to tell someone what had happened to Abhi. But I could not gather the courage to tell either Achan or Amma. I missed my grandmother Mutti then. She would rub pain balm on her knees, and listen with a small smile to everything we had to say to her, without scolding us. But she died a couple of years ago. I went to her room; it was cool and dark. I felt that I could still smell camphor and her pain balm in the air. Her torch and her spectacles were still on the side table. She had a serious expression in her picture on the wall, she had a notion that a photo was official business where a smile wouldn’t do.
That year Vasu was selected for the district soccer team, there was even an article in Achan’s newspaper of the dynamic new midfielder with a winsome picture of a sweaty, glowing Vasu. I was consumed by the new school year too, being good at academics was valued more than sports. During the same time Abhi was slipping. At school, I often saw him standing outside his classroom. This was the punishment of choice for our teachers. The principal called on Achan to tell him Abhi was not grasping his lessons.
Achan’s older brother, my uncle, a bachelor, was a renowned scientist. He lived in the city close to the top schools of Malabar and he advised Achan to send me to stay with him for the last three years of school. My uncle was the most admired person in my family and I was excited at the prospect of living with him in the city. I think Vasu was jealous and wanted to go too, but Achan told Vasu to think of the invitation as a scholarship I had earned.
The journey to the city was a seven-hour bus ride. His home was on a wide street with trees on either side and large houses close to one another. The closest one to our home was four kilometres away, if I did not count Chandu’s house. In the absence of a forest to roam, I wondered what the children on this street did in their holidays.
My uncle had a collection of books bigger than our village library, he played world music on a gramophone and bought me my first pair of denims ever. My uncle was an atheist and started the day with listening to Radio Moscow or Voice of America instead of chants. The cool red oxide floor of the house contrasted the wood of the ceilings. Black and white pictures of DaVinci, Curie and Tesla were on the walls, not many others made the cut for him.
He gave me pocket money every month and I was free to come and go as I pleased. I wasn’t sure if he was making me independent or if I had disappointed the early promise which he saw in me and he did not really care what I was up to.
I got news and home-made sweets every three months or so when Achan visited his newspaper head-office in the city and came to see us. All he said was everything at home was well and that I should focus on my academics. The truth was I scarcely thought of home, I was immersed in the challenges and opportunities of my new life.
I often took a bus, which stopped right outside the gate, and circled the city. I stayed on it for the whole route. The ticket was just five rupees. I passed by bright bakeries and crowded cinemas. Every kind of shopping area, and shanty houses, and palatial ones. My favourite part of the journey was a beautiful leafy university campus with large groups of students, boys and girls. Some lounged about in no hurry and others rushed towards the buildings, on the run. My uncle had gone to this college, and one day I wanted to study here too.
Some evenings we had visitors for dinner, they discussed domestic politics and geopolitics.
One evening they feverishly discussed opposing points of view on the big student revolutions that were happening in Eastern Europe or somewhere else faraway.
One of his friends, Nambiar-uncle kept his drink down, and rose shakily to his feet, to more forcefully put across his point to the room.
“It is a question of taking responsibility. The ability to stay the course, any course. We are too old in our ways, not capable, too bourgeois. So, who is going to do that here? His generation? Him? Self preservation and nothing else, that’s the new lot,” he said looking to me.
“Self preservation is much better than a self righteous revolution in which people die,” someone said.
“There! There’s the bourgeois in you speaking.” He turned his attention to me again, “And that’s what he is, what he will be. The smallest crisis will drown his resolve. Kamal, tell me have you ever faced a crisis? You know what a crisis is, don’t you? A problem, a problem hurled at you.”
I shifted uncomfortably. One came to mind, immediately, the afternoon Abhi almost drowned, but I stayed quiet. It was a rhetorical question.
“Leave him alone Nambiar,” my uncle said.
I tried to not take it personally. They were not particularly talking about me, Kamal, I was illustrative of my generation’s apathy towards others in this argument. Still, I felt rather deflated.
It was more than a year before I visited home. I caught an overnight bus and got down at the bus stop next to the Shiva temple. Achan’s friend was sitting outside the temple, his cylindrical percussion drum, the chenda, was next to him. He was a surprisingly handsome, fit man who looked younger than Achan though they were the same age. Beating that chenda must take away all his stress, I thought.
“All that learning Kamal, your head can hardly take it, it’s become bigger,” he teased. He looked happy to see me. “Have not seen Abhi much lately. And Vasu lost his partner in crime when you left,” he said laughing. Apparently, Achan had told him of our many misadventures.
“You’re here for a few days, aren't you?”
“Yes, for about a month.”
“Go on, get some rest. I’ll stop by one of these days to see you,” he said warmly.
The paved road ended at the old Shiva temple and a small path next to the temple wound further south, towards home. Dawn was breaking, the narrow road, with bright green foliage on either side was inviting and the air was fresh. But I was uneasy as I walked, perhaps it was lack of sleep.
Only Amma was up when I reached home. I showered, had a couple of her small dosas with fresh coconut chutney and went to sleep in my familiar bed.
It was after noon when Amma came to wake me for lunch. Achan and Vasu were already at the dining table. Vasu seemed leaner, more muscled, his hair was longer too. Even sitting down he had a coiled energy, ready to spring into action.
“Is this the way of the city, to sleep all day,” Vasu teased thumping my back.
Amma was bustling about, she had prepared a feast.
“Where is Abhi?” I asked Amma.
, Her face seemed to cloud over for a moment before she said, “You start eating, I’ll call him.”
She had prepared all my favourites, I couldn't wait till the end for the sweet vermicelli pudding so I started with a bowl of it.
Abhi followed her into the room. He slid onto the dining bench and surveyed the table.
He nodded at me. His face had thinned out and it made his eyes look even bigger. Abhi's was a sickly contrast to Vasu’s sun-kissed skin.
In the evening I went to his room. He was flipping through a comic book. I handed over the box of paints I had brought him.
He took it and flung it on the bed next to him, “Thanks.”
“It’s Camel, Acrylic paints. You’ve been wanting these right?”
“Have you drawn anything new?”
Things were the same and also different. Vasu had new soccer friends now and he was often out with them. Every time I spoke to Abhi, he gave me some monosyllabic answer and seemed anxious to get away. The first week went by slowly. I ate Amma’s food and went running everyday past the temple like my uncle used to do in the city. Passersby whom I had known all my life stopped to ask if all was well. It perplexed them that I was hurrying to no place with no purpose.
It was a week later that Amma told me that Abhi had been sick just after I had left for the city. He was often nauseous, had abdominal pain and a food aversion. At the hospital he was diagnosed with intestinal pseudo-obstruction, a big-name diagnosis for a small boy. Amma said Abhi was fine now though, during those days, he had lost half his weight and had missed months of school. Since it was health related, he would have a chance to continue on to the next class if he passed the prior year tests within three months of the new year. Failing the school year was a crushing tragedy for a boy in my family. I wanted to ask her if the burning sensation of lungs filled with water can cause this pseudo-obstruction problem, but did not. She kept explaining that Achan did not tell me because he did not want to worry me while I was in the city. Not being told did not anger me. I too had hidden from her that her progeny had been in harm’s way.
One evening Vasu and I went to swim at the pond after he got back from soccer. Neither of us suggested the river.
“Amma told me about Abhi,” I broached.
“Yes, he was not well, but he’s been fine for months.” Vasu was swimming gracefully, he looked like a young Tarzan.
“What about school? He might fail the year, right?”
“It’s in his hands – he just has to write his tests again,” Vasu retorted.
“Vasu, remember two years ago we had gone to the river with Abhi and did not tell?”
“What does that have to do with anything? He slipped, then he was fine,” Vasu snapped. “It’s some stomach bug he has, nothing to do with anything.”
Abhi had more than just slipped but I let it go.
I had a dream that night. In my dream Achan, Vasu and Abhi came to visit me in the city on a rainy night in a bus. I could see from the balcony balustrade that Abhi got down in front of my uncle’s house. But Achan and Vasu stayed on the bus. Not seeing me anywhere, Abhi too tried to get back on, but the doors had already closed. As he ran after the bus, he fell down. The rain water was rising fast around him, almost like the road was becoming a black river. Abhi was calling out, waving his hands but he was invisible and inaudible to everyone but me. I was confused about why Achan was not seeing or hearing Abhi. I mouthed Achan's name first and then screamed it aloud, again and again. I woke up in a sweat, hearing my own voice.
I could not go back to sleep and restlessly stared at the glowing hands of the clock till dawn. At dawn, I went for a walk to the forest. I longed to run away to the city, to my books, to be again the representative youngster in the room as my uncle and his friends talked of a strife that was far away from me.
The last two weeks went by fast. I planned to take an early morning bus back to the city. Amma was up, she looked sleepy. It was still dark out but my packed lunch was ready on the table. She made me promise that I would come home more often. I did not know what promise to draw from her about Abhi. The only promises that matter are the ones you make to yourself.
The bus was late. It was a cool foggy morning and I should have felt like the free traveller I was, but I did not. The three months ahead for Abhi seemed to me like a crushing rock on his shoulders. I could help him. Why couldn't I do another year in the school here and go to the city next year? Achan would not be happy, Abhi may not take my help, Uncle may not call me back. But that was up to everyone else. I did not like pseudo-obstructions, I too had to do what I had to do. But what if the university would not have me? What would I do? Grow cabbages, maybe. I don’t know why I thought of that. I imagined Uncle and Achan’s shock.
‘He has no educated view on the state of humanity, on the revolutions of the world, and he wants to grow cabbage!’
‘But not just any cabbage, the big juicy joyful ones of an attentive farmer.’
I was thinking of this absurd imaginary conversation when the bus came by.
It was almost full. The seat right at the back had some room. The eight or so sleepy looking passengers sitting on it, wordlessly shifted, a few inches each, to make room for me, as the bus lurched forward into the almost-day.