The Retreat

 Mahesh Paudyal

FAR AWAY IN the ‘land of the green sun’, the mighty Divang ran low into a trickle. The empire of the sand glistened with dignity in the scorching heat of May. Now and then, a water snake would raise its hood from its declining civilization and sniff the possible danger if any, hiss a time to two in derision, and hurry back to darkness. The chestnut stood along its bank in a row as though they were stalwart soldiers stationed at the border during wartime. A robin would fly from one twig to another as through it were knitting the entire wood into a web of unity.

The old man with the old rucksack sat beneath a chestnut, weary and exhausted; took a long breath and drank a gulp of water from his flask. His eyes were queer and lifeless though a dim light of half-hopefulness persisted in them. The spent manhood in a spent body appeared to be a living story of permanent defeat. He was alone, alone, all alone in wide, wide obscurity.

“Where to, Grandpa?” asked a voice.

The old man looked with a start, somewhat perplexed, his eyes instantly returning to life. An unknown voice in an unknown land sounded a little queer though it was quite soothing and lovely. With a countenance of recognizable belongingness, the old throat spoke, “To Mali, my son! There lies my old house, my own house that I built myself.”

Thus began a journey of the two, each assuring company and security to the other, thereby multiplying the ecstasy of the trip. Occasionally, the boy would ask something and the old man would display his six-score experiences in beautifully knitted language of traditional dignity. Sometimes, they talked about the post-war world and sometimes of the ever-rising market prices. “Life is hard and would be harder,” was their conclusion in every discourse. They continued, switching their tête-à-tête from one topic to another until a query of the boy made them confined to a vital aspect of the old man’s journey: ‘The Retreat’.

“Why? What made you take this challenging trip alone, Grandpa?”

Answer to this question was a long story that ended their journey and at last left the boy with his heart on his mouth, completely astonished.

“My son,” began the tale like the echo of a voice coming from a dark tunnel, “Sushil ruined our house and I had to leave it. I am going to my own house now.”

Perplexed was the boy as was his intellect. Before he could discern anything, the ill-fated old age began to play its records: “Though it’s two scores back, I feel as though it were only yesterday. These shoulders—that are no longer shoulders now—are red till date and swollen. The scratches come alive on reminiscence. I remember I had carried those stones and woods alone, out of which my house sprang up. Damn the Lord and damn my lots! Nothing of it stands now save the memories and lo, I am undone and I am gone.”

The boy now looked at the blue firmament far above with vacancy. Then he turned his eyes to the trembling lips of the old man trying to make out what the story had got to convey.

“I had my bed in the innermost room on the first floor. I called it the Sanctum Sanctorum, for, it bore the statue of my Lord —this Lord, the God of life and death.”

The old man took out a stone image of Lord Shiva from his rucksack and showed to the boy. Putting it back, he continued, “The stones and the woods that lined the inner surface of my room conveyed the spirit of security and belongingness. They belonged to me and I was related to them.”

Before the boy could comprehend anything sensible, the old man continued, “When Sushil’s mother died, I changed my room to the ground floor, feeling too lonely upstairs. As time passed, Sushil, the professor of Chemistry at the Regional College commented, “Dad, we should ‘restructure’ our house. It is too old to be worthy of a professor both in style and form. I am ashamed.”

“But I loved my house,” added the man, “for it belonged to me. Everything it had was beautiful. I had designed. So any proposal to alter it in any way would not be tolerable to my conscience.

“It was in early January that the stone wall of my Sanctum Sanctorum was replaced with lifeless bricks and shabby wooden frames. I kept quiet. Then came the turn of my bedroom.

“Those stones and wooden planks that bore my fingerprints were thrown away to the devil. The ‘new room’ was too obscure to contain my feelings. It contained nothing that belonged to me. So I moved into the living room, midway.

“Before it was March, the living room got modernized. I lost my relation with it too. Those cemented walls, those iron frames, and those blinds and railings did not belong to me and I could not reconcile with them. I silently felt that both my personality and thoughts had been guillotined.

“I remember,” continued the old man, “my shift to the veranda irritated my son. One day, he came very near to me and asked, ‘Dad, what on earth are you doing? I have comforted the house only for you. You are my living Providence. Why does your goodness move from one room to another? This self-triggered exile to the veranda is too humiliating to bear.’

“I had no business in revealing my thoughts to the professor. So I said, ‘Spring nights outside are calm and cool. My mind finds peace in the breeze here.’

“This settled the issue. I continued a month on the veranda, sleeping and enjoying the night air. Sometime a thrush would sit on the mango tree and sing to the moon and the stars. The silent moon in the far-off horizon gave me the undying company through the night. The veranda was mine; absolutely mine for the furniture it bore, the mud wall along its side and the stone grinder fixed on the floor were mine. I remember: I had carried the grinder stone on my shoulders through a distance of five miles when the Divang had gone wild in summer. I can still feel the pain. The sight would give me ecstatic solace.

“Finally,” continued the ripe memory, “on my return from the Chands’ one evening, I found the veranda not mine. Gone were the furniture and the wall. The grinder had been rolled downhill. I looked for it. It lay down there—the dead body of the great martyr who lost his life in the battle between an old father and a new son—that will do down into history. On the courtyard stood a lattice of bricks that were to replace my wall, my life. I could no longer reconcile with this hostile spectacle. The obscured wilderness in a house that had hitherto been mine own was not in any way bearable. Instantly, I moved out. I left his house before his family was up this morning. Far away in Mali, where the cuckoos sing, there stands my old house that I built with my own hands. I am going back to it after so many years.”

Before the roads diverged, the boy peeped into the rucksack. It contained the stone image, a few dry leaves of the country tobacco and an old shawl. Two drops of silent tears fell from the old man’s eyes. One fell into the bag, right onto the head of his god. The other fell on the boy’s head and got lost among his long, black hairs.