Indra Bahadur Rai
ONCE AGAIN, THE wind had started rattling on tin sheets from kerosene containers arrayed on the roof, sending a periodic ‘clang-clang’ in a monotonous way. It sent a shiver down the spines of its occupants: ‘The wind might blow the roof away anytime soon.’
In the dim light from the wick lamp being slapped by the wind that had crept into the room, Kalé’s parents looked up at the ceiling. The tin sheets, black with a layer of soot flying from the burning logs, glistened with tiny raindrops hanging there like perspirations. The rafters, dark like the boughs of dhupi and pipli trees, prevented those eighty to ninety sheets from flying away.
“Why is the wind targeting this very mound? The devil’s breath,” said Kalé’s mother when the wind had subsided and she had started making fire in the fireplace.
“It doesn’t seem stopping,” said Kalé’s father, “It has been a whole week.” He had hardly finished his sentence when there was yet another battering of rain on the roof.
“When it rains, we run the fear of landslide,” said Kalé’s father, “We were wrong in choosing this place for settling down.”
The rain grew heavier. Even as the deafening sound emanated from the tin sheets on the roof, the flames started dancing in the fireplace. When the rain got even heavier, they started hearing a long, continued battering in all the directions, instead of individual hammering of isolated raindrops. They thought the downpour would wash away everything; the land would start sliding; the silt running down the hill above would bury them all through; the house would slide and they would be pulled down together with it.
“Father Mahakal! We have you to protect and save us.”
The rainwater, slanted by the blowing wind, struck the planks that made the walls of the house. Before long, the planks were wet from inside too. The scaffold, usually kept leaning against the wall, had been moved away to a safe place sheltered from rain. Kalé was fast asleep, his sister clung to his chest.
“We built this house at this location because of your pressure,” said the husband, fuming out in suddenness. “Else, my job as a policeman was faring well and we were happy in the town. There was no risk of wind or landside,” he added.
The wife did not say anything.
“You dreamt of a farm in vain. Did it give you anything big?” said the husband, grumbling.
“Go to bed and sleep in peace,” said Kalé’s mother. “This is what summer rain is like. When it pours, it’s always like this. What can we do? If the land slides and kills us, think our days were numbered,” she added.
“You came here seeking death. And you’ll die for sure.”
In the meantime, the rain subsided. The wife poured some tea in a mug.
When the rain subsided further, they could even hear the sound of the rainwater dropping from the eaves.
As he drank tea from the mug, the husband asked, “What must be the time now?”
“No idea. It must be around eleven,” said Kalé’s mother, and yawned twice.
“It must stop now.”
Having drunk his cup dry, the husband stood up. As he was moving toward the door, he bumped against the pot kept therein to collect leaking rainwater. The water spilled all over the floor.
“Why you didn’t look around?” said the wife, pulling a sack and mopping the wet floor.
The husband did not say anything.
When he opened the door and came out, he could hear the Rungdung River roar ferociously in the dark, sending tremors on the flanking cliffs. On hearing other sounds in between, he speculated the river carrying the whole of a fig tree down, or the sidewalls sliding into the river and making the river-water yellow. The darkness was so thick that he could not spot even his own hand.
Back home, he stopped at the threshold instead of entering the house and shouted, “Bring the torch. Do it soon.”
Kalé’s mother pulled out an old, black torch from underneath her pillow and gave it to her husband.
“The wind has blown away the roof of the animal shed,” said Kalé’s father receiving the lighted torch, and moved downhill. He directed the eye-shaped flash of the torch on the floor of the house and on the grass-stand.
Kalé’s mother came following him.
When they entered the shed, the cow sitting comfortably on the muddy floor stood up with a start, and mooed, “Bow!” Its back had all been soaked in rainwater leaking through the roof, and its hairs had clung smoothly over its body.
Kalé’s father gathered the drifted tin sheets and arrayed them on the shed roof. To hold them in place, he placed a couple of stone slabs atop them.
A light drizzle continued.
Kalé’s mother lifted a big stone with an algal coating from the ground and passed it over to her husband on the roof. Having placed the stone there, the husband said, “You go home. Rain is getting heavier again. I will set aside some grass for the cows and return.”
“Let’s go together,” the wife insisted. She stood waiting for her husband.
“If so, feed some grass to the animals. I will finish patching these sheets. Oh, no; wait! Who will hold the torch for me? Wait; I am almost done.”
Even as she was waiting, the leaking rainwater soaked the face of Kalé’s mother all through. It penetrated her shawl and leaked out in a flow. Kalé’s father came down from the roof, having finished his job finally. The two ran home, setting aside some grass for the animals hastily.
The rain started pattering even more.
After they had changed their dresses, the two looked like characters ready to act the roles of beggars in a play. They made fire and sat around it trying to warm and dry themselves.
“Is there some tea?” the husband asked.
“Aren’t we going to bed now?” said the wife in answer.
“You sleep. Set some tea boiling for me.”
Kalé’s mother pulled a dirty kettle. She poured a few mugs of water in it.
“Boil full,” the husband instructed. The wife did as he said.
Kalé’s father had his eyes on the ceiling. He stood up from his place and pulled out the rope he had tucked there for making a tether. He tied one of its ends on the ridge beam. As he was wondering where he should anchor the other end, he saw the grinding stone.
“Roll that here.”
“See how the wind batters.”
Kalé’s mother could say nothing. She rolled the grinding stone and left it near her husband’s feet.
Kalé’s father looked assured after he had tied the other end of the rope on the rynd of the stone.
Having added a pint of tea powder to the water in the kettle, Kalé’s mother climbed on her bed.
Left alone, Kalé’s father was now in deep thoughts. He shook only when the water, boiling inside the kettle, started coming out of the spout and falling into the fireplace.
Even as he was preparing tea, a heavy wind raged, making something fall and pound on the roof with a loud thud. Could it be a branch from an alder tree? Whatever it was, the sound left Kalé’s father in deep shudders.
When the rain and the wind had subsided, he sneaked into his bed to sleep, leaving the lamp burning.
He thought the rain must have carried away the carrot seeds they had sown during the day. Perhaps the risers on the terrace slid down, carrying with them all the marigold plants. He decided that upon getting up next morning, his first task would be to dig out a canal right from the base of the butterfly bush tree just above his house in order to drain the rainwater away from there.
He had hardly taken a short nap when his sleep broke. He could sense heavy rain and wind somewhere outside. The storm seemed decided to known down the house and blow it away. The rain and wind, slapping the trees around, sent a terrifying roar. He nudged his wife and said, “The storm is so heavy. What shall we do, Maili?”
Even before Kalé’s mother had thought of a reply, the floor of the house shook frantically.
“What’s this? Come on, wake up!”
The man picked the torch and rushed toward the door. Kalé’s mother followed and stood behind him. When they keenly observed in the torchlight, they could see a portion of their yard sliding down the slope. A mulberry tree slanted gradually and fell upon the sliding ridge.
“What shall we do now?” the wife said, crying out of intense fear.
“You go; wake the kids up,” said the husband, talking over the deafening sound of the downpour. After his wife was gone, he switched off the torch and stood at the doorstep, staring.
Somewhere inside the raindrops and the cloud, he could figure a dim light of hope, signaling the approach of dawn. Wiping his doubts away, the rooster covered by a basket inside his house crowed: “Cock-a-doodle-do!”
Next morning, the husband was drifting water away from the yard with a spade, sheltering himself under a ghoom – a sack-wrapped rain-cover made of bamboo slices. Seeing his wife prepare to leave for the market with the pail of milk, he stopped short and said, “Do not forget to buysome long-size nails. We must hammer them all the day.”
The wife lumbered uphill, leaving him a message: “If heavy rain continues, let not Kalé go to school.”
On her way up the hill, she found the path blocked by landslide at one spot. She did not meet any of the usual passersby that morning.
After walking for one and a half hour, she stood at the doorstep of Moktan Babu who lived near the courthouse. Here, they bought half a liter. While she was pouring out their share of milk, Babu’s wife, a beautiful young woman, said from inside, “Come in; drink a cup of hot tea and go.” Kalé’s mother shut her umbrella, left it leaning against the door, and walked in.
“How the rainstorm raged all night!” she said, “We did not have a single nap tonight last night.”
“Nor did we,” said Babu’s wife. “The wind kept slapping the window pane, and it creaked all night. I could not sleep. My goodness, how unruly the wind was!”
“Is that all?” said Kalé’s mother—a woman of about forty, rather dark of complexion, with a robust body and a well-formed face—by way of mocking. “At ours, it almost blew away the house. Here, you don’t run the fear of landslide. Almost the whole of our yard has been carried away. It’s targeting the house next. But we cannot stay idle making the storm an excuse. We cannot leave our cattle starving. We must rush out to gather grass. If we miss the sleep at night, we can’t afford to compensate it at daytime.”
“The comfort you see in us is not true,” said Babu’s wife, expressing her sympathy. “The roof leaks; it has destroyed all the garments and books. There is power-cut in the meantime,” she added.
“Compared to us, you are much better off. Look at me; it has started drizzling again and I am here. My heart shudders thinking what has happened back home. The storm last night battered all my maize plants. It spared nothing.”
Kalé’s mother left the house. She had to deliver milk to other customers as well.
She said to herself, ‘Our wrong decision to take up farming is a cause of this misery. Before that, we had been living comfortably in the town. We received a salary as soon as the month was over, and this kept us going quite well. The children’s school was quite near; the water-tap was not that far, either. We had no reason to fear rain or landslide. We invited a needless hassle by buying the farmhouse.
‘Since the day we bought the farmhouse, there has been no leisure at all. All my fingers have been ripped by a sickle. My palms are not worth showing; they have gashes filled with cow-dung and dust. My body, wrinkled beyond telling, is fading away. When we cannot leave home even for one day, there’s no question of going to far-off places to recreate. We fall into the jaws of death, working.
‘Is all this labor merely for the sake of food and clothes? What worth are the food and clothes we have? We hide our food lest anyone should see it. I feel awkward to stand in line with others in these clothes.’
Her mind was stormed by furies of many kinds.
From there, she moved toward the house of the gateman of the police station to deliver milk.
When she tapped the glass of a shut window and shouted ‘Milk’, a girl in a filthy frock came out to receive it. While she was pouring one and a half liter milk they subscribed, the wife of the gateman shouted from within, “Boju, bring three liters extra tomorrow. It’s for pudding. Bring good quality milk.”
After hesitating for a while for unknown reasons, Kalé’s mother said, “Tell her I can’t manage. I can hardly meet the regular demand. I am not even sure if rainstorm will allow me to come tomorrow. Tell her to find elsewhere.”
The woman had overheard her. She appeared at the door, scanned her soaked clothes thoroughly and said, “You bring it, please. Where else could I find on such a rainy day? You bring it. It’s Deepak’s birthday, you know!”
“I can’t afford.” A tired, repressed voice found a way out. She stared at the gateman’s wife. Oh, how clean her clothes were! Her complexion was quite fair and her hands very beautiful. Her husband was in comfort. The house was full of chairs and beds. The wardrobe had a stake of saris. She didn’t have to touch mud, clear animal dropping or fear rain and sun.
“I can’t. I won’t even come if it rains in the same way tomorrow.”
“In that case, should we drink black tea all the day? What’s that you are saying? Please bring milk for our sake. Bring it at any cost.”
Without giving any answer, Kalé’s mother walked down the stairs and moved toward the marketplace.
On the way, she muttered to herself, ‘No, this won’t do! Spending each day in the fear of landside and storm and plowing an acre of land twice a year for living is like murdering the family. I will sell all the cows and heifers for a whole-sale price. I will sell away the farm, the tins and wood from the house and the cattle shed. After that, I’ll rent a small room for five or six rupees a month in the town and stay there. I can sell vegetables at downtown like Thuli’s mother does. My husband is quite proficient in carpentry and masonry. Or else, he can be a good watchman. We can easily provide for our two kids. I won’t live in such a desolate place anymore.’
She felt good on being able to take this decision. She forgot the pain on her feet. She did not mind the discomfort of being soaked in rain. With an elated heart, she entered a food-store in a street and bought some legumes for two aanas and thrust it into her bag. To a Darji woman who had come to buy garden peas, Kalé’s mother asked, “Sister, don’t you know of a room lying vacant around your locality?”
“I don’t. Why, Sister? Did you have landslide around your place?”
“No. I am just willing to rent a house near to the marketplace—one for ten to fifteen rupees a month, with a tap and lavatories nearby.”
“There’s a room I know,” said the slender Darji woman, “A Madhesi man paid twelve rupees a month, the additional two rupees being electricity charge. He left. Sister, may I inform you tomorrow?”
“I will myself come to your place tomorrow. I will come around this time.”
Kalé’s mother put her umbrella up and moved toward a storehouse. She had two more places to visit to deliver milk now.
When she arrived at the veranda of Bibi Gurung, she saw the house full of visitors so early in the morning. Two or three of them stood outside under an umbrella, talking. Kalé’s mother entered through the backdoor and gave milk, but she could not make out what was happening there. She thought something had gone wrong with one of the spouses. They had no kids. The wife, a stout woman, kept stomping her feet in and out of the house in slippers. Carrying her pet Nini, a white cat, in her arms, she moved about from one house to another in the neighborhood. The husband ran a dry-cleaning shop at Laden-la Street, up there.
“What happened? Why have so many people gathered?” she said, enquiring with a woman who had come from a neighboring house to receive milk on their behalf.
“Nini’s mother fell off last night. She has not regained her senses yet.”
“Where did she slip off?”
What she heard was this: When they shut the door during the heavy rain the previous night, Nini was unknowingly left outdoors. It must have mewed for a long time, but the sound of the heavy rain would not allow them to hear. When the rain subsided, they started searching for the cat. Their search outside turned into thin air; the cat did not show up. When Nini’s mother went down the lane to find the cat, her slippers got stuck somewhere and she fell so hard on the road. They immediately sent for the doctor but he did not come in time. She was still unconscious.
“Oh, it’s because of a mere cat,” said Kalé’s mother. “Isn’t this their cat?” she asked.
A white cat sat near to the fireplace, licking its fur.
Kalé’s mother could not walk away indifferently. She continued sitting at the threshold.
While there, she saw the husband come out of the house, crying. She heard people say the woman had passed away.
“Shit! What a wonder,” she said and lifted the bag that contained her milk pail.
At the watchman’s house, she first delivered a quarter of a liter of milk, their regular share, and poured a little more for the little girl who had shown up with a bowl in her hand. Then she sat down comfortably on the sacks spread on the floor.
The watchman’s wife removed the kettle of boiling tea from the fireplace and set the milk to boil. Then she said, “How’s everything at yours, Sister? I think the storm wreaked havoc. It must have devastated everything.”
Everything was fresh in her mind. However, Kalé’s mother did not speak.
The watchman’s wife continued, “It’s not so bad here in the town. There’s no such fear. But it’s so different around Kaman Basti. People are in great peril. I know that. Seeing all that, my father and his brothers migrated to the town.”
This time, Kalé’s mother spoke with added boldness: “Crisis occurs everywhere. It’s true that the storm battered many things, but we’ll set everything right. These are not things we can’t mend. We have our own home; we also have an animal shed with cows in it. We have a farm; thirty to forty bamboo trees are standing there. There are gogun and fig trees as well. The cucumber vines are clambering skyward. What harm can a mere storm do? I will get back and set everything right immediately.”
She gulped the tea that was hot enough to burn her tongue and rushed toward the store to buy nails. She said to herself, ‘Oh, I am getting so late. Kalé’s father will slay me today.’
Trans: Mahesh Paudyal