EXCERPT FROM THE CONCH BEARER
The Night Visitor
It was dark by the time Anand got off work, and he was very angry. Haru was supposed to let him go by 4 P.M., but he often found an excuse to keep Anand longer. Today he had claimed that Anand had not wiped the tables properly and made him do them all over again.
Anand had scrubbed the pocked wood of the tables furiously, biting his lip to make himself stay silent. Arguing, he knew, would only earn him a slap. Now he was going to be late for the market! Today was payday, and he had promised his mother that he would stop at the vegetable bazaar. For days now they’d had nothing to eat except potatoes and white radish boiled with rice, and he was tired of it. He had hoped to get a bunch of fresh, crisp spinach, or some sheem beans to fry up with chilies. But by now most of the pavement vendors would be gone. If only I had the power to run my hands over the tables and make them new and shiny! he thought. But no, if I knew how to work that kind of changing magic, I’d start with Haru’s black heart.
Bone tired though he was, Anand ran all the way to the vegetable market. Just as he had feared, the bazaar was deserted, the ground littered with wilted cabbage leaves and banana peels. Only the big stall with the neon lights, the one that charged extra for everything and had a big red sign that said NO BARGAINING, was still open. Anand walked up to it warily, knowing that most of the items there were beyond his budget. But maybe there would be something not so fresh. Then his eyes were caught by the pile of mangoes. Mangoes in winter! Where had the storekeeper found them? They were plump and soft and just the right ripeness, their skins a glowing orange streaked with red. How long had it been since Anand had eaten a mango? He swallowed, imagining the sweet juice that would fill his mouth when he took a big bite, and asked how much they were.
“Two rupees each,” said the storekeeper in a bored voice. Obviously, he didn’t think the ragged boy standing in front of him could afford the price.
Anand opened his mouth to protest. Why, the storekeeper was charging twice as much as what the pavement vendors would have charged! But he said nothing. The man would only shrug insolently and tell him to go elsewhere. He hesitated, then took out the meager bundle of rupee notes he had tucked into his waistband and peeled off two of them. He carefully picked the biggest, fattest mango, hefting it in his palm. Wouldn’t Meera be amazed when he showed up with this beauty!
By now it was late and windier than ever, and Anand had to keep his head lowered to avoid the dust and debris flying through the air. Thankfully, he didn’t feel cold. Why, he thought in surprise, he hadn’t felt cold all day, not since he gave the old man his tea! He hoped the old man had found a place to shelter himself for the night. It looked like it was going to be a rough one.
The streets were strangely empty as Anand made his way home. Was it because it was dinnertime, or was it this unpleasant wind? The small businesses that lined the street—the printing presses and machine shops—had turned off their lights, padlocked their gates, and sent their employees home. With a brief pang of envy, Anand imagined them safe in their warm, lighted houses, listening to songs on the radio or sitting around a table, eating a hot meal, maybe a chicken curry with rice. After dinner the children would crowd around their father, begging for a story. The mother would bring bowls of sweet milk pudding from the kitchen. That was how it had been with his family, too, before . . .
Anand shook his head to clear the memories. What use was it to long for what was no longer there? He’d better concentrate on getting home quickly. He’d have to start the cooking because Mother wouldn’t be home until much later, and Meera couldn’t be trusted to light the kerosene stove on her own. She couldn’t do much of anything since the bad-luck accident, that’s how he thought of it, had happened to her. He hoped she had remembered to wash the plates and fill the big earthen pitcher with water from the tenement’s tube well. Sometimes when he came home, she would still be sitting on her bedding with a vacant look on her face, and he knew she hadn’t moved from there since morning. But he never had the heart to scold her.
He passed the cigarette shop, surprised to see that it, too, was closed. Before today, no matter how late he had been in coming back from work, it had always been open, its shiny radio blaring hits from the latest Hindi movies. There was always a crowd of young men around it, joking and jostling around, smoking beedis or chewing on betel leaves and spitting out the red juice wherever they pleased. But today, with its shutters pulled down and locked, the shop looked abandoned and eerie, and Anand walked past it as quickly as he could.
Right around then he became aware that someone was following him. He wasn’t sure how he knew it. There were no sounds—not that he would have heard footsteps in all this wind. Nor was there anyone behind him when he forced himself to whirl around and look. The street was empty and dark—a streetlight had burned out—and Anand realized that he was at the same crossing where Meera had been when the accident that had turned her strange and silent had occurred. He pushed the thought away from him with a shiver and quickened his steps. There’s no one behind me, no one, he said to himself over and over, and, under that, Mustn’t fall, mustn’t fall. Because then, whatever was behind him would catch up.
There’s no one behind me. Mustn’t fall.
He was running now. There was a fog all around him, obscuring the shapes of the shacks and turning the alleys into unfamiliar, yawning tunnels. His foot caught on something, and he went sprawling. The mango fell from his hand and rolled into the darkness. Oh no! Not the mango he’d spent two whole hard-earned rupees on! He scrabbled desperately for it, but felt nothing but asphalt and dirt. He wanted to search more, but something told him it wasn’t safe to delay any longer. Where had the fog come from, anyway? How could it be windy and foggy at the same time? Was this his street? Where was his house, then? He looked around wildly, not recognizing anything. Help me! He called inside his head, not knowing to whom he called. Help! He was ashamed to be acting this way, like a child. The fog in front of him thinned for a moment. Ah! There was his shack with its warped tin door! He had never been so happy to see it. He knocked frantically on the door, calling to Meera to open up, hurry, hurry. He heard her unsteady steps, then the bolt sliding across. He threw himself inside, slammed the door behind him, and bolted it again. He leaned his back against the door, his heart pounding. Meera stared at him, a startled look on her face.
He forced himself to smile because he didn’t want to scare her. “Don’t worry, Meera,” he said, though his throat was so dry he could barely speak. “Everything’s all right.”
Then he heard the knocking. Tap, tap, tong. Someone was hitting the door with . . . a stick? a piece of metal? He could feel the vibration against his shoulder blades. He jumped away from the door and looked around for a weapon, something with which to defend himself and his sister. In the flickering light of the small oil lamp, he could see nothing except an old bonti, its blade dulled from years of cutting vegetables. Somehow he didn’t think it would stop whoever was outside.
Then he heard the voice, deep and rusty, as if it had been at the bottom of a river for a long time.
“Anand,” it said. “Let me in.”
Anand didn’t know how long he stood in the middle of the room, eyes squinched shut, heart pounding madly. But the knocking didn’t stop, as he had hoped. There it was again. Tap, tap, tong.
“Go away,” he whispered through dry lips.
“Let me in, Anand,” the voice said. “I won’t hurt you.”
Right! Anand thought. That’s what all the evil beings in his storybooks said, the monsters and witches, the dakinis who drank blood.
“I don’t believe you! I don’t even know who you are!” he shouted. “Go away now, before I yell for the neighbors.”
“Your neighbors won’t come. They won’t even hear you over the wind. And even if they did, they’d be too scared, because of the killing—”
“How did you know about the . . . killing?” Anand asked, astonished, stumbling over the word. No one in the neighborhood spoke of it, not out loud like this, anyway. Like Anand, they all called it “the accident,” as though renaming it could make it into something less dangerous.
The voice didn’t answer his question. “In any case, you do know who I am,” it said instead with a little laugh. “I’m the old man to whom you gave your tea.”
Perhaps it was the laugh, or the memory of the old man’s hand, light as a bird’s foot in his hand, but Anand felt less scared. He wasn’t completely convinced, though.
“Why did you follow me home?” he asked.
“Don’t you know? You called for me—for us—and we came.”
“I never called anyone,” Anand said. Then he added, suspiciously, “What do you want from me?”
“Did you not call for help a little while ago?” the old man said.
“But that was in my head—”
“Exactly,” said the man, a smile in his voice. “But you’re right. I do want something. And in return I have something to offer you. But I can’t discuss these things with a closed door between us. Please?”
Wondering if he was making a terrible mistake, Anand motioned to Meera to get behind him. What if it’s a trick?
a voice inside him whispered. Ignoring it, he raised a trembling hand and unbolted the door. It was only when the door had creaked open on its hinges that he remembered that the man had said “we came.”
But thank heavens, the old man was alone. Perhaps I misheard him, Anand thought. Something about him was different, though. Was it Anand’s imagination, or did he seem straighter and taller? His white hair and beard glowed eerily in the dim light from the lamp as he stepped into the room, and there was a brightness in his eyes. The cloth bag was slung over his shoulder.
“Thank you,” he said with a slight bow. “The wind was becoming rather unpleasant.” As Anand watched, he walked to each corner of the room and made the same strange motion with his hand that Anand had seen him make earlier. Then he sat down on the mat the boy had spread out for him.
“It’s very unusual for it to be so windy here,” Anand said, mostly because he didn’t know what else to say. He wondered if it had been the old man whom he had felt following him earlier. Somehow he didn’t think so. The old man was strange, but Anand didn’t feel scared when he looked at him. If anything, he felt happy. That was odd. Why should he feel happy looking at this ragged stranger whom he’d never met before today?
“I’m afraid I’m partly responsible for that the old man was saying with a rueful grin.
What do you mean? Did you . . . make . . . the wind happen?” As soon as he said it, Anand felt stupid. People didn’t make winds happen.
But the old man didn’t seem to think it was a stupid question. “I didn’t,” he replied. “Someone who wanted to stop me did. But before I explain things, is it possible to get a bite to eat? I’m starving. Only had a glass of tea all day, you know, and a few pooris!”
Anand jumped to his feet, embarrassed. “Of course! I’ll start the
rice and lentil stew right away. That’s all we have, I’m afraid.” He
hunted around in the corner for the pot. Thankfully Meera had remembered
to wash it today. He glanced at Meera, who was unusually quiet. She had
crept close to the old man as he talked and was watching him intently.
This surprised him. Ever since the killing, she’d been terrified of
strangers, and on the few occasions when they had neighbors visiting
them, she had curled up on her pallet in the far corner of the room,
with the bedclothes drawn over her head.
Anand lit the stove, threw a few handfuls of rice and lentils into the pot, and added water, salt, turmeric, and chili powder. In twenty minutes, it would form a bubbly stew. Once again, he wished he’d been able to pick up a few vegetables. And that mango! If he hadn’t dropped it, he could have cut each of them a slice to eat after dinner. He wanted to kick himself for being so clumsy.
The lamp in the corner flickered and the flame grew small. Anand could tell it was running out of oil. He reached for the bottle to refill it, then remembered that it was empty. He’d been supposed to buy some oil, too, on his way home, but the wind and the fog and the fear had driven it out of his mind.
The lamp wavered and went out. Now there were only the blue flames from the kerosene stove.
“Maybe I can help,” the old man said. He rummaged in his bag and came up with the stub of a candle. It wasn’t much, Anand thought as he lighted it, but at least it would last through dinner.
“I’ve a couple of other things here that you may be able to use,” the man said. He held up a small yellow squash and a handful of green beans, and Anand thankfully chopped them up and threw them into the pot. The room began to fill with a delicious smell. As though, Anand thought, he’d put lots of expensive spices into the pot. They sat in the small golden circle of light thrown out by the candle stub, waiting for the lentils to cook. As they waited, the old man told them his story.