The dogs had stopped barking. With their tails tucked between their legs they cowered in corners among the debris. A brown pup was suckling its mongrel mother, that lay stiff. Charu wanted to ask someone something. But he forgot what. Also, he did not know if he could speak. He tried to say aloud, ‘Can I talk?’ Though the wind had stopped howling through his hair, something still marred his hearing.The market, where his shop once stood, was razed to the ground. Rubble and plaster covered his tie-and-dye hosiery stall. His face was streaked with dust and his clothes were ripped in the panic-stricken dash into the cornfields when he was jostled from all around. The tiny tri-coloured paper flag on his kurta though was intact. Just this morning, while pinning it on his lapel, his daughter said: ‘Babuji, can you take me to school on your cycle?’
‘Have you forgotten it is Republic Day today? There cannot be school.’
‘We are celebrating it in school with marching, Babuji,’ she told him patiently.
Charu’s younger son burst in mockingly, ‘You should see them, Babuji. Left, right, left… like frogs!’
Before sibling rivalry raised its omnipresent head, Charu said, ‘Yes, Munnu, we will go on the cycle.’
Someone touched his shoulder. It was an old woman.
‘Please, can you pull out my grandson? He is in there somewhere.’ She pointed at a crumbling structure from which bricks and twisted iron bar had crawled out.
Charu vaguely knew that he should be mouthing comforting words, but all he could manage was a shake of his head. He saw her scrambling over to somebody else.
Slowly, still in a daze, he set out on foot for his home. The cycle, he knew, no longer existed.
On his way he tripped only once. Though strewn with rubble and concrete shards, he found it easy to climb up and down the uneven path. Mechanically he trod on the newly unfamiliar path, with none of the apartments he was used to seeing. Buildings lay on the ground, innards out. One such climb nearly toppled him over. He was sure the leg belonged to a woman. The ankle was slim and had a silver chain with tiny bells around it. He tried to walk faster, though the thought of what lay ahead made his steps slower and slower.
He reached Munnu’s school. The once-proud building was now silent and prostrate. Charu strained his ears. No, no left-right-left could be heard.
He remembered how disappointed he’d been when told a daughter was born. ‘A girl? Are you sure?’ he asked his aunt, who was also the midwife in the family.
‘Yes,’ she had said, wiping her eye.
But that was before he met his Munnu.
He had thought the earth under him was going to tear open.
First there were the vibrations, then it had begun to rock like a cradle. The wind had whipped the dust into a frenzy. All around him were cries of ‘cyclone, cyclone’. The white tourists, who had been smudging his tie-and dye merchandise with their unwashed fingers, had looked petrified. Then he heard the unmistakable crunching of stone walls that shook the very moorings of his heart. Like mad women possessed by evil spirits at temple festivals he and the foreigners had made for the fields.
‘It is a bomb,’ another shopkeeper had whispered. ‘Pakistan has done it.’
But even from a distance they could see the walls crack open, convulse and come down. Hands from the earth’s belly were pulling them down.
He leaned against the broken down school wall. His legs gave way and soon he was sitting by the wall.
Slowly Charu began to weep.
(Reprinted by the author’s permission)
Shinie Antony is a short-story writer. Her books include Barefoot and Pregnant, Seance on a Sunday Afternoon and Why We Don’t Talk. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Asia region prize in 2003 for her story A Dog’s Death. She is a co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and editor of the festival magazine Beantown.