The four of them – Pahir, his wife, Baani and two children — are sitting on their haunches around the corpse with their mute eyes.
“How long can we wait? Go and try for a loan. Baba has to be cremated without any more delay” says Baani, who has a wan face and skeletal frame.
“Who will give me a loan? We are already under heavy debt. Two consecutive droughts have rendered us pauper.
The children, who are almost naked except for a piece of cloth around their groin, keep staring at the dead man with famished faces and indifferent eyes. They are interested in nothing except for roti, (bread) which they have not touched for two days at a stretch.
Pahir curses his father. “Why did you have to die at this time. We don’t have paisa?”
His wife keeps silent.
Suddenly a villager is seen darting into the village, shouting, “The jungle has caught fire. It is going to spread soon.”
Pahir perks up, a smile flitting across his face, picks up his dead Baba and runs towards the Basrah-Chormara jungle. A strong breeze turns the fire into a conflagration.
“Keep this for your journey?” Baani says, giving him a fistful of sattu, (roasted gram flour) tied up in a cloth.
Pahir hesitates. “No, no, how will the three of you survive? This is all that you have. ”
“Don’t worry. The children would bring something from the jungle.” “But be careful. Some of the roots are poisonous.”
Pahir has come to Delhi from a village in Bihar. The June sun is in rage, streaming down punishing fire. The metalled roads are exhaling scalding breath. The roads, generally clogged with traffic, have some empty stretches, shimmering in the heat, creating patches of mirage. Only those, with unavoidably urgent business, or the poor, having to earn their livelihood – rickshaw pullers, vendors, courier boys, and fast-food delivery boys — are moving around. The auto-rickshaw drivers are charging the commuters double, at times, treble the meter fare.
Wearing a grimy shirt and pyjamas and carrying a hand-sewn cotton bag, Pahir is walking on the extreme left of the road, as the pavements have been swallowed up by the roadside shops. He wipes the runnels of sweat on his face with his angochha (a cheap towel). His throat is parched, but he is thinking only of reaching the Security Agency. Sham’s father has given him the address of the Agency who got his son the job of a security guard. Every now and then he shows the paper to a shopkeeper to find out the directions.
He feels giddy and stops briefly and then continues walking. Suddenly, he collapses, his head hitting the road.
Cars keep zooming; the occasional straggler lingers for a minute and moves on, the unconscious Pahir continues to bleed, and the water trollies keep doing brisk business.
The Sun takes it upon itself to cremate him.
Dr. Subhash Chandra is a former Associate Professor of English from the University of Delhi. He has to his credit two collections of short stories, <Not Just Another Story>, and <Beyond the Canopy of Icicles>, about sixty short stories in foreign and Indian journals, four books of criticism and several research articles. He is on the International Advisory Board of <Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific> and on the Editorial Board of
<induswomanwriting.com> He has been awarded Nissim International Prize 2019 for fiction by The Significant League.