Chapter 1 - Fading Autumn

The sun was beating down an hour ago, but clearly it changed its mind, as it decided to beat a hasty retreat. Of course, there was not much to complain; it had decided to streak the skies with the colors of its flames that it was showering till then. Brilliant oranges, vivid violets and fiery reds just spread across the sky like a rash, complimenting in part the fading greens and deepening browns of the autumn hills. Right of a painting, one would say standing there, taken aback by the sheer brilliance of something as ordinary as a sunset. Of course, it is a matter of great deliberation as to whether a sunset is ever ordinary. However, what was certain was that this sunset was not ordinary at all.

Nek Chand was standing outside the house, staring at the sun. He had come out to pick up those jars of pickles that he had kept out in the sun for preparation. Making these pickles was an old tradition in the family that his wife, like many other women before, had carried on till her last day. Getting the vegetables was such a pain in the winters, and these pickles were the only reminder of what it meant to have vegetables in the harsh and cold winter that was knocking on our door. The tradition had been going on since time immemorial.

Nek Chand recalled that first memory of childhood still carved into his senses. He was just four - or was it five years? - old. His mother was busy bottling fresh pickles while opening up the old bottles with the other women of the village, and the boys were playing in the courtyard, oblivious to what was going on. Just then, his mother called him out, and asked him to open his mouth, and before he could react, put in a piece of the raw mango pickle into his mouth.

That tingling taste of the spices - fennel, pepper, chillies, turmeric, salt - and mustard oil freshly pressed in the local oil press came rushing back to him. Sadly, he thought, there was no one left to do it. But as long as he was alive, thought Nek, the tradition will go on. There were hardly any people in the village, since the exodus that had begun twenty years ago. Many of them, including his own son, had left the village. All that they had learned with the schooling was that they needed to study further. And there was no other place like the big city far, far away, to discover another world beyond this world.
Light had still not gotten away completely, when he saw Rajbhatt, the pundit (village priest), walk along the path downhill. He lived nearer to the khudd, that gentle giant that flowed into the river somewhere after those three mountains he saw in the line. Thank God, he often thought, that my senses work properly. That indeed is more important to feel alive sometimes than even the physical ability of the body to work.

“Namaskar punditji! Kutthun chaliye? (where are you going?)” he shouted out. The pundit, a frail man, was walking down with a hunch of his own. He had been invited into the village around the same time that Nek Chand had married, and had ever since been there. And perhaps, wondered he, he was one of the four people left behind, insistent on dying with the village.

The pundit, an old wrinkled man, smiled from behind the folds of his skin, and motioned a greeting. He was in fact walking downwards to his house. “Namaskar Nek Chand! I was in fact coming to your house. There was an important thing to discuss with you.”

Nek Chand cleared the verandah and turned on the light bulb, lighting up his courtyard. Raj Bhatt sat down, heaving a sigh of relief. His tired body was happy to drink the cool water and jaggery offered to him, and soon, he entered the kitchen, sharing the cold dinner of rice and lentils with a mango chutney that Nek Chand had prepared during the day. Nek Chand noticed how just like him Rajbhatt ate very little. Age kills the will to eat as well, he thought, as they soon, started talking.

“Have you heard Nek Chand,” began Rajbhatt, “there is a tiger going around the villages?”

“Tiger? Really?” a surprised Nek Chand spoke. “The last time anyone saw a tiger was twenty years ago. Even that one was shot down by the sarkari hunter who came in the jeep. You remember Rajbhatt?”

“Yes indeed. But another jeep came today. A new hunter babu has come, and he said that the tiger has been causing harm to cattle in other villages. They are afraid that it may even start to attack humans. And all this in the middle of pitrapaksha is not a good omen.”

Pitrapaksha! It struck Nek Chand out of the blue. Sita’s death anniversary was around the corner. “Sita died fifteen years ago this month, didn’t she?” spoke up Nek Chand.

The date’s clearly around the corner. And he had not even sent his letter to Shailesh. For the past few years, he had been ignoring the village, saying he was too busy. Perhaps he was saying the truth, thought one part of Nek Chand, while the other kept saying that Shailesh did not want to come back at all. After all, thought Nek, why would he come back? What was left behind in this decrepit, decaying village that lost more and more people with each passing day?

And yet, hope persisted. His granddaughter - he had only seen her photo - had never visited the village. He wanted to hand over Sita’s anklets to her as per her wish. Would it be possible, perhaps, to hand over that last memory before he could depart peacefully? But why did this though come in suddenly?

“Yes she did. I remember how difficult it was for you and Shailesh that day, when you bid goodbye along the river. I did the final rites. The first of many that came since then,” sighed Rajbhatt. Clearly, he had seen one death too many, and seen the erosion of a vibrant community over time, plagued by many desertions.

“So is Shailesh coming?”


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