Waiting for Doomsday

Dev Kumari Thapa   “THE NINE PLANETS will crash into one another they say, and the world will be drowned in water.” “Not the entire world, though! Only places with sinners will face doom. God will save the holy places.” “Nothing will remain, if the nine planets bump into one another and crash. Pious or the profane—all will be reduced to dust.” The villagers sat around the fire, warming their hands in the flames and talking about the alleged apocalypse. The women continued their chores, albeit with a great degree of anxiety. Rumors about the approaching upheaval had sent unprecedented fear down everyone’s spine. Bikram had recently returned to the village, having completed his education in Tarai for bachelor’s degree. It had been about a year since he started teaching in a school in the same village. Abject poverty at home had forced him to abandon his regular study ahead, but he continued to take examinations as a private candidate. He carried on teaching and self-study simultaneously. Bikram was extremely fond of his village. The family that rented him an apartment provided him food. So he didn’t have to bother about cooking. The wife and daughter of the house-owner treated his as one of their own family members. Initially, he took the rumors of the apocalypse for a joke and laughed away. But when he found the villagers engrossed more and more in discussing the issue, he started doubting if it was really happening. He was aware that an educated man like him should not be carried away by such baseless whispers, but the innate human nature that involuntarily responded to any potential source of fear made his shudder. Even as such ripples of thoughts lashed his mind, Bikram was gradually drawn towards the spot, where sitting around the fire, the villagers were warming themselves. On seeing him come nearer to them, everyone hailed him. Someone said, “Come and join us, young man. Warm your hands in the flames. You’re still so young and not married yet. But all is going to be over soon.” “Who made the predictions about this apocalypse?” Bikram asked. An old man answered, “Who else? That holy saint. He is a kindred spirit, you know. We visit him every morning and offer our obeisance. I am sure, even a glance of such a great man rinses us off much of our sin. Haven’t you visited him yet?” “Oh no, I haven’t been to him yet. I haven’t seen him either, though I have heard a lot about him. I think I should see him soon.” “You must,” cried the villagers. “Else, you will never see him. A catastrophe is going to befall us in a while, and everything will be over,” they added. Bikram said he would surely do so, though he was not committed to it. He thought it was pure nonsense. ‘The comet that was feared to strike the earth has disappeared. Nothing, nothing at the least happened. Where on earth is this scandalous catastrophe coming from then?” He didn’t, however, think it wise to air his dissent with the villagers. He knew they had been gripped by superstition quite firmly. He exchanged a couple of courtesies, and moved towards his apartment. As soon as he reached home, the landlady called him out for dinner. He left his room and entered the kitchen. To his dismay, he found that the talk of the doomsday had infested their kitchen too. Maiya, the landlady’s daughter looked quite scared. She raised her head time and again and gazed at Bikram’s face, seemingly trying to say something. Bikram, however, was aware that everything was not usual that evening. So, as soon as he was done with his dinner, he went back to his room. He did not stay back to chat as he did on other days. He entered his room and wicked down the lantern. Then, he reclined on his bed together with his shoes. Fingers crossed behind his head, he started gazing vacantly at the ceiling. Memories of all kinds haunted him in a swarm-like sudden tides rippling in a sea. Even as a myriad of issues were poking his mind, he drifted off to sleep. While still in deep sleep, he could sense someone caressing him, and planting a gentle kiss on his face. He woke up with a start and looked around. To his utter surprise, it was none but Maiya, the house-owner’s daughter. In utter astonishment, he asked, “What’s wrong, Maiya? Why are you here at this hour of the night?” “Oh, it’s nothing. I’m here just so,” said Maiya, her head bent quite low. Bikram feigned some annoyance in his voice and said, “Go and sleep. You should not be in a man’s room in the dead of the night. What will others say if they see you?” “Who cares?” said Maiya, rather licentiously. “We’ll all be dead in a while, and be gone,” she added, her voice laden with grave emotions. Bikram was shocked to witness this unexplored aspect of Maiya’s personality. She sounded like a matured adult. Bikram was in a fix, though he was aware that he should use his senses and send her back. “Sheer childishness,” he exclaimed. “You should not believe everything they say out there. Is this what you learnt from my tutoring of you so hard?” In a sudden fit of emotions, Maiya pressed him hard against her bosoms, and broke into a loud cry. “What will happen of us now?” she cried, before Bikram had adjusted himself to this new and unexpected situation. She planted fervent kisses on his face and touched him hysterically. He tried to push her away, only to find her stick harder like a leech. When none of his endeavors paid off, Bikram gave up. The long repressed craving of a man was suddenly aroused, and Bikram started seeking for a vent to purge it out. He pulled Maiya into his bed. The night had given way to dusk when Maiya returned to her room. Bikram took a shower and went into the kitchen for lunch. His feelings were rather awkward today, as new sensations tickled his mind. He felt he was stronger than ever and more matured. Feelings of victory made him elated. Maiya was serving the meals. Bikram glanced briefly at her. To his astonishment, she looked stunningly calm like a good housewife serving out the meals. Her countenance didn’t reflect even a fleck of disturbance or fear, following the night’s incident. Her face looked bright and deeply contented. Her looks reflected the grace of a new bride. There was not even a trace of insecurity or remorse on her face. From a young girl, she had turned into a mature woman overnight. After lunch, Bikram moved towards the school to attend to his daytime duty. The rumor about the upcoming upheaval had spread even further. People were spending their savings recklessly. “Why do we need to save?” they said, “if there is going to be no future?” Dambaré Karki slaughtered the mammoth goat he had saved for the upcoming Dashain festival, and threw a party. Hakucha slaughtered his bull and distributed the beef among his friends. Whoever had saved cash as emergency fund started spending on the first thing he or she could. More than the fear of death, they seemed to be in craze for spending their savings. It appeared as though the festivals and arrived and gripped the villagers with their frenzy. The saint’s hermitage showed similar pomp and splendor. One could see a pile of jewelries, cash, fruits and cereals his devotees had offered to him. Beside the pile was the saint sitting cross-legged on leopard hide, his dark bears and moustaches showing off with a swagger. Bikram was flabbergasted. How come there was so much of gold and silver in a village that always reeled in so much of poverty! Bikram bowed down on the saint’s feet as others did, but made no offering. The saint showered his blessing upon Bikram and said, “May you live very long!” Bikram received the saint’s blessings in his palms spread out together in front of him. It occurred to him that from the hide where the ‘Maharaj’ sat, the leopard had resurrected, and was now sitting right in front of him in the guise of the saint. Expressions in the eyes of the saint, it occurred to Bikram, were similar to the glaring of a leopard. They both seemed to suggest the same intent: enchant your prey with your looks, and attack! Such profane thoughts emanating in his minds made Bikram shudder, and he rushed back to his apartment. There, Maiya was waiting for him with dinner ready to serve. He felt quite awkward. He didn’t know how he should respond to this new relationship, though he could not help feeling a thrill deep within. Maiya served him his dinner. He was momentarily carried away by her stunning and seductive looks. He even thought, ‘Could she be a lecherous girl?’ Soon it was Saturday, the day of the projected apocalypse. Since the previous night, people had started singing devotional numbers and praying to God. They outstayed awoken over the whole night, praying. As morning came darting, they all gathered for a feast, their Last Supper! Sel roti, chiura, mustard greens, potatoes, pickle, salad and curd constituted their recipe for the day. The villagers waited for the doom with a lot of impatience and excitement. The day waned of its own accord, and gave way to darkness. Soon it was midnight, but there was no apocalypse in the offing. People started getting utterly restless. They felt as if a much-awaited guest had tricked them and cancelled the visit. They started moving back and forth as a wave of ennui made everyone distasteful. They stopped singing. On Sunday morning, the elderly members of the village walked up the hill to have an audience with their revered Maharaj. To their utter dismay, they found the door to the hermitage locked. Neither the saint, nor the pile of treasures could be seen there. All they could see there were flowers, green leaves, garlands and tika. Stupefied, the villagers collapsed at the threshold of the hermitage door. When the news spread out to the village, people started fuming with rage. The youths went out to hunt for the swindle. Not a grain of cereal had been left in the village now. How were they to survive the whole season? All their goats and lambs, fowls, buffaloes and boars had been slaughtered. Thank God, the cows and bulls were still alive! The villagers started consoling themselves. Yet, there were a few who were enraged beyond measure. Some even started making a mockery of the entire drama. What was even more surprising was that, no one seemed happy on finding the apocalypse turn into a fiasco. It was this very hoax that had made a fool of them. Even more embarrassing for them was the fact that some outsiders had walked into the village and they saw everything about the fiasco, making them appear the silliest people on earth. Bikram lay on his bed, deep in thoughts. ‘I am an educated man and a teacher,’ he thought, ‘but I allowed myself to be fooled like others. I had noticed that the Maharaj looked more like a leopard than a saint. But did I warn the villagers? No. I had no guts for that. I am nothing more than a coward.’ Suddenly, his mind reached out to the previous night’s incident at home. That young girl Maiya had exhibited enough of courage to get the man she liked. ‘It’s the circumstance that proves a person’s worth,’ he thought. At the depth of his heart, he could feel a gush of love ebbing for Maiya, his landlady’s daughter. *** Translated by Mahesh Paudyal [Dev Kumari Thapa (1928-2011) is basically a storywriter. She wrote stories both for adults and children. Though she was born and brought up in Darjeeling of Indai, she later moved to Nepal and got settled in Biratnagar. A nurse by training, she wrote right from her schooldays. Her published story collections are Ekadashi, Jhajhalko, Seto Biralo, Tapari, Bhok Tripti, Pralaya-Pratikshya and Dev Kumari Thapaka Pratinidhi Katha, her representative stories. Recently, a collection of his stories have also been translated and published in English. She also wrote some biographies and essays.]