By Neilay Khasnabish
I suddenly woke up in the wee hours, hearing footsteps. Was it a thief? I held my breath and tried to listen for the footfalls again. Someone was walking outside the house. I slowly got off the bed and picked up the iron rod from the corner of the room. I kept an iron rod and a small Nepali kukri near my bed at night whenever I moved to a new place. I had a transferable job. I had come to this small village on the north coast of Assam a month ago to work at a school as a teacher. The village was on the bank of the Brahmaputra River.
I held the iron rod tight and folded my checked lungi up to my knees. The iron rod was very cold. I opened the window slightly. A cold stream of air hit my face. I couldn’t see anyone. I couldn’t hear the footfall again.
I silently opened the door and sneaked out of the room. I looked up at the gibbous moon and tiptoed over to the bamboo fence and, to my surprise, saw a small boy examining my plants in the kitchen garden and then stoop-walking over the stick on which an earthen pot had been set up to ward off the evil eye. He gently shook the stick with his left hand and looked up at the pot, his right hand on his head. He wore a red sweater and covered his face with a scarf. He was unmindful of my presence. I hunkered down so he couldn’t see me. He stood in the middle of the garden and looked around. He plucked a handful of coriander and squeezed himself out through the passage on the opposite bamboo fence. Who was he? I went into the garden. I went up to where the passage was. I made sure the only intruder was the boy.
On the third day, he came to the garden again. It was 4:31 A.M. Determined to watch him, I hunkered down at the same place. He wore the same sweater. He plucked some tomatoes and brinjals and put them in his plastic bag. He seemed to be in a hurry. Then he escaped like before. I immediately ran to the lane intersecting the main road. The village was covered in a blanket of thick fog. I couldn’t trace him after some time as he vanished into the fog. He must have been somewhere nearby. In such a short time, it was not possible for him to go far. He certainly lived in one of the houses in the neighbourhood. To catch him red-handed wasn’t my priority. My priority was to find the house he lived in. I felt a sensation in my throat because of the chill winds that blew into my nostrils. I wanted to find his house.
It was 9:45 P.M. I wore my woolly hat and grey shawl. I had a torch in my hand. I wrapped my face with the shawl so that nobody would recognise me. I had already become known in the village because of my sociable nature. I stepped into the road and felt the sharp jagged gravel under the soles of my thin flip flops.
The road was almost empty except one or two passers-by on their bicycles. I took the turn to go to the cluster of huts where the hard-working unprivileged lived. My colleagues had told me that illegal immigrants lived there and had warned me against them. Most of them earned their living either by selling vegetables or worked at construction sites in nearby towns. My colleagues had also told me that these people would steal things whenever they found a chance. I’d guessed the little boy belonged to them. It took me around twenty minutes to reach the place. I didn’t see anyone outside the huts.
I felt a spark of excitement in my body as an idea struck me. Unable to stop myself, I tiptoed into the compound of the hut where I’d first seen light. I found a cranny in the wooden window. I saw a young couple lying together. I slipped into the next compound. I found a small gap in the mud-plastered thatched-bamboo wall. I peered in. An old hurricane lamp, set on a squat wooden stool in the middle of the room, was burning.
A boy sat beside his mother, and his father was making the bed. I realised the mother was pregnant when she stood up to lift the lamp to help her husband with the light. She passed the lamp to her son, and I clearly saw his face. Was he that boy who had plucked brinjals and tomatoes at my garden? How could I conclude when I hadn’t seen his face before? And I wasn’t inclined to trust my assumption either.
“Today I couldn’t sell a single betel nut,” the man said.
“Deuta, I’ll help you tomorrow,” the boy said.
I pressed my ear against the wall. The cold mud-plastered wall touched my clean-shaven cheek. The surface of the wall was rough.
“No, Appu. You’ll stay home. You need to look after your mother. She needs help. And she shouldn’t be left alone at this stage,” the man said.
“I can stay alone. I know my time. The cow dung cakes are ready. It’ll be better if Appu goes to market with cow dung cakes tomorrow. If he can sell them, some money will come. At this stage, we need money most,” the mother said.
The man nodded and lay down.
“Aai’s place is occupied,” Appu said.
“Go to market early tomorrow,” the man said.
“We’re thankful to the new schoolteacher. He gives our Appu vegetables from his garden,” the woman said to her husband.
She thought the thefts to be gifts! I momentarily forgot to breathe.
“People say good about him,” the man said and turned right.
“If our Appu had gone to school, he would’ve learned a lot from him,” the woman said, looking at Appu.
Appu was silent.
You’ve heard what you never expected to hear. Now go back home.
I listened to my inner voice.
The next day, just after school, I went to the village market to buy Appu’s cow dung cakes which I knew I’d be able to grind into manure. The sellers were sitting on either side of the dirt road. Some were shouting to attract customers. Smells of fried pakoras wafted through the air. Fine dust particles, raised by people’s movement, were on the air. My eyes were scanning the sellers like a policeman. I found Appu. He was shabbily dressed. His shorts were darned. His half-sleeved shirt was torn near his left elbow. He arranged the cow dung cakes in piles on the ground. They were round and small. He was looking around to find customers. He gave me an uneasy look as I suddenly stood in front of him. Fear crept into his eyes. His lips were trembling. He then burst into tears.
“I want to buy the cow dung cakes,” I said gently and sat on my heels, not caring about the tears he tried to wipe with the his small hands.
Aman, seemingly in his sixties, came up and said, “Appu, he’s the new schoolteacher. Why are you afraid of him?”
Appu stared at my face through the remnants of his tears.
“I’ll buy the cow dung cakes, Appu. I’ll buy the entire cow dung. How much do you want to get for them? I won’t bargain. Just tell me the price you charge.”
Appu didn’t speak.
“Will you sell them for two hundred rupees?”
Wiping the remnants of tears off his eyes, he nodded.
“Will you carry the bags to my home?”
“I will buy it for two hundred rupees. Okay?”
He looked astonished.
I put a one-hundred-rupee note in his hand and said, “I’ll give the remaining money when you bring it to my home this evening. Now you go home”
He examined the note, fondled it, then touched it to his forehead before stashing it the inside pocket of his shorts.
We started walking. He was heaving the heavy bag on the way to his home, which fell between my home and the market.
“Do you go to school, Appu?”
He didn’t answer.
“If you’re interested in learning, you may come to my home every Saturday and Sunday. You’ll have new friends at my place.”
He didn’t speak.
In the evening when I woke up, I was shivering with fever. I dragged myself to the kitchen and warmed a glass of water. The doorbell rang. I opened the door.
It was Appu. He had the bag with him.
“Leave that bag outside and come in.”
He came in.
“Take the money from the center table,” I said and, with my chin, pointed at the hundred-rupee note.
He picked it up, cast a look at me, and said, “Sir, you’re shivering. Are you ill or something?”
“I’m ill with fever,” I responded.
He immediately ran out of the room and vanished. I shut the door. I returned to my bed and wrapped myself in the blanket and fell asleep. I would’ve perhaps continued sleeping but I woke up because Appu was banging wildly on the door while calling out to me. I stumbled out of bed, angry and annoyed. I answered the door and found Appu standing on the veranda, a plastic bag in his hand.
“Why are you again here at night, Appu?” I asked, my voice shivering with cold.
He came in and put the bag on the center table.
“I told Aai about your being ill with fever. She’s given me food for you, sir.”
My eyes fixed on his face, I kept standing, unable to speak.
Neilay Khasnabish is a fiction writer from India. His writings were published in Evocations, Finding the Birds, The New North, The Assam Tribune and The Sentinel.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL