Writing Nepal, 1st: Let the rain come down

Samyak Shertok | June 27, 2013

Let the Rain Come Down is a moving story of a son’s complex relationship with his father after his mother disappears. The prose is lush and nuanced, the imagery fittingly dark and transcendent, and the story is filled with insights and surprises around corners. What finally clinched the deal for me was the ‘leap’ the story takes into the future at its very end: I was giddy with pleasure at being transported to another, higher reality.

– Samrat Upadhyay, judge

Let The Rain Come Down

Oh, what a small sky for so much rain. 

– Colum McCann

Krishna wakes to the sound of the downpour rioting on the slate roof and the wind churning at the battered pine windows. A deep sleeper, he hasn’t woke up at night in a long time, but tonight his eyes open as though from a dog sleep. Even in the dark, despite the torrent and the din, he can tell the roof is leaking where the shingles have either cracked or shifted in the wake of the relentless heat and commotion, allowing the rainwater to slip between the tiles. He can easily fetch two china bowls from the adjoining kitchen and place them on the floor to catch the falling raindrops but won’t: last time it rained, his father had assured him he would replace the cracked tiles and make the roof watertight before the next drizzle, but even when the dark clouds had claimed the western sky and the quarry season was drawing to a close, he didn’t exhibit the slightest interest in securing the new tiles needed for the repair. Does he even remember the promise he made to Krishna as he struggles to sleep the whole night because of the staccato sound of the drops hitting the ceramic? By morning when he wakes to boil water in a tea kettle on the wood stove, the rain will have dug deep into the mud floor and almost seeped into the pine joists underneath, and only then will he know he has to keep his word. Had Krishna’s mother been around, she would have never let the rain drip into the house – not a drop.

Only when he pulls the homemade quilt over his cold collar bones and prepares to go back to sleep does he realize it’s not the pelting or the wind that woke him – it’s Bhishma, their dog, barking menacingly outside. Through the gaps between the howl and batter, he can hear his father coughing “Huche! Huche!” downstairs, a phrase he has come to depend on to impel Bhishma to chase away the monkeys feasting on the cornfield days before the harvest and the boys surreptitiously reaching for the pomegranates in the orchard with their tapering fingers.

Bhishma was his mother’s gift to him for coming third in the seventh grade three years ago. She handed him a veiled wicker basket she herself had woven. When he removed the cotton cloth, it revealed a curled black Labrador pup, asleep, vulnerable.

“Name him.”

“Me?”

“Well, he is yours now.”

A month ago Krishna had read the abbreviated Mahabharata in his Social Studies class and in a throng of the demigods in the sweeping epic, Bhishma’s vow of life-long celibacy so that his father could remarry had stood out to him. It was not his “terrible vow” that impressed Krishna, however – it was his ultimate sacrifice for his father’s rather narcissistic happiness.

“Bhishma. That’s a lovely name!”

But when the pup whined incessantly, wasting away what energy he had been born with, Krishna regretted picking a name the lab looked unlikely to ever live up to. The mythical prince’s courage to make a promise that would cost him his throne and eventually his life was perhaps too much for anyone to live up to, let alone a suckling pup. For the first two months, all Bhishma did was whimper and he never left the basket, hardly lapping up the corn soup or the buffalo milk.

Then one morning Krishna woke to find the bowl licked clean. At first he wondered if his father, finally giving up, had thrown away the food, but when he said no, Krishna was delirious. He cooked another meal for Bhishma right away, and within minutes of placing it by the basket, it was gone. In two months, Bhishma was porpoising around the yard, climbing onto his shins, and barking at him affectionately, his tail wagging all the while. And in three years, he had tripled his size and his whine had grown into a deep growl which scared the visitors and sent a dozen monkeys scurrying across the suspension bridge.

Propping his back against the pillow, Krishna gropes for the safety match on the makeshift headboard and strikes a stick, but the striking surface is damp and the brown cap crumbles before the head can catch the spark. He blows his warm breath onto the strip and with the fourth stick barely succeeds. Cupping the flame with his hand, he guides the teardrop flame to find the kerosene lamp and places the half-burned match on the wick until the lamp sputters to life. The burning light reveals a brass pitcher filled with stale water and his parents’ grainy black-and-white photograph in an askew frame on either side of a Radha-Krishna bronze statue. He lifts the picture and wipes the glass with the edge of the sheet even though no dust has settled on it. This picture was taken a few months after he was conceived, his mother had told him, and although the photograph doesn’t betray the slightest swell in her belly, he can see his life already pulsing through her pupils and fingertips, every part of her body conspiring to push nutrients into his tentative bones. Next to her is his father staring into the shutter too hard, and even though their elbows touch, the partition between them is unmistakable.

A week after receiving his mother’s gift, Krishna woke to find his mother wasn’t home. He trotted around the orchard hoping to find her pruning the dead twigs, but she was nowhere to be found. Back at home, he found his father slinging all clothes from the closet. The mattress had been upturned, quilt sprawled on the floor. All her saris, pacchauras, and jewelry were gone, too – except for her mangalsutra. He almost asked his father what was going on, but the way his mother had taken everything but her wedding necklace told him everything there was to know. Bhishma was, in retrospect, his mother’s parting gift. Had he known it then, he would never have accepted, but now the pup was the last tangible memory of his mother.

Carrying the lamp on his left hand, Krishna goes around the silo looming in the middle of the room, careful not to knock over the butter churner against the wall, and exits into the kitchen. Down the ladder, he descends a rung at a time. By the opposite wall of the main door at the foot of the ladder, when he reaches the back door to his father’s bedroom, once their vibrant clothing store, he raises his hand instinctively but finds the door open. Lifting the lamp high forward, he can barely make out his father’s silhouette wavering near the closed door that opens to the front yard. His father’s right foot stamping on the hardwood floor and clapping of hands send a tremble toward him. Outside Bhishma continues to bark with the undiminished vigour and conviction.

Once it was clear his mother was not coming back, on several occasions he overheard the relatives and some of the villagers urging his father to remarry.

“Life is hard and long, chhora.”

“Look at your boy. Ram! Ram! Who’ll look after him?”

His father would nod and manage a saturnine smile, but as soon as they left he would go back to plucking the weeds or watering the roots in the orchard and pretend not to notice the women’s blatant invitations to flirt.

His father continues to cough and clap, but what is he goading Bhishma for? At this time of the season the cornfield is only a shallow sea of saplings, and the monkeys know this as well as any farmer. Certainly no boys would brave the frigid dark for a bite of a raw pomegranate. He walks toward his father but stops a metre short from him. His father looks at him and then looks away.

“Go back to sleep.”

The lamp reveals the profile of a face that has long succumbed to the grotesque twists of fate. As his father brings his hands together, the pallid fingers appear magnified. It’s the same calloused hands that he feared the most when he and his mother returned after errands to collect debt from those who had not paid their dues by the deadline. His father was reluctant to sell cloth on credit, but in this part of the country no credit meant no business at all, especially when you faced stiff competition from the Newar shopkeeper by the suspension bridge who somehow managed to sell everything cheaper than they ever could. At least the villagers claimed so. But once the customers exploited his father’s good faith to its limit, they would avoid his shop altogether, and his mother would have to go knock on their doors.

Krishna loved accompanying his mother on those trips, but it was not as much the affected hospitality of the villagers or his mother’s company as it was the revelation of the disparity between him and rest of the village children that enthralled him in taking these long walks. He loved how clean and well-dressed he appeared in front of the children in tattered clothes tending to chickens and goats and the way they gawked at him made him feel like royalty. But when the sinking sun painted the skyline crimson and his mother showed no signs of returning home, Krishna would get worried. “Last time,” she would say, but soon he learned that there would always be another last time. Unable to sleep in the houses with strange odours and singed ceilings, he missed the scent of pomegranate blossoms wafting into his window and felt sorry for his father for having to struggle with coaxing the kindling and stoking the fire.

Back at home, his father would be waiting for them at the threshold.

“How many times have I told you to not spend the night in someone’s house?”

“You think it’s easy to pry money out of those clenched fists? Why don’t you give it a try sometime?”

Unable to conjure up an argument or tame his temper, his father would then rely on his quick hands to get his point across, almost throwing his mother off-balance.

“Never take chhora with you again.”

Since those years his father’s hands might have become bony, but they still inflict the same terror on him.

Krishna rests the lamp on a shelf at a safe distance from his father. He hears Bhishma growl. Suddenly he realizes Bhishma has no cover from the rain – his kennel was never meant for monsoons. He reaches for the bolt of the front door, but his father grips his hands.

“Tiger. There’s a tiger outside.”

It takes him some time to register the information. In the past few months, a tiger had been tormenting a neighbouring village: first the Gurungs’ goat went missing, then two lambs from the Thapas at the tail of the village, so they had formed an armed vigil group. Those who kept dogs clasped a hunting ring with sharp needles sticking out around their dogs’ necks, hoping that would at least lengthen the tiger’s assault and the growls would wake the house owners, if not the vigil group. There was no dearth of those, however, who doubted the efficacy of the iron ring and opined that its heavy weight would only put the dogs at a disadvantage.

Krishna envisions a tiger on the front yard, strolling toward the pen by the buffalo shed where the goats must be bleating next to the frightened chicken coop. The only thing that stands between the tiger’s canines and the goats’ fragile necks is Bhishma, but now even Bhishma’s growl is starting lose some intensity.

Bhishma recycles his barks and growls. The tiger makes no sound.

“We must do something.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Scream out the window for help.”

“It’s raining. Huche! Huche! ”

“The Vigil Group might hear us.”

“In this wind?”

“We can’t let Bhishma die.”

Huche! Huche! Go. Go.”

“You’re going to get him killed.”

“He has the iron ring.”

But the spiked ring is not going to help Bhishma topple the wild beast at least twice his size, just as his father’s pantomime is not going to scare away the famished intruder that has already smelled its dinner. There’s a hunting rifle that belonged to his grandfather somewhere in the house, but even his grandfather never went out with it. Most likely it is rusted and empty, and even if it’s loaded, it would take a miracle for it to fire. He frantically goes through the shelves looking for something, and when he comes across a cotton rag, he stops – next to the rag on the shelf is Bhishma’s ring. He fingers the pointed arrows and in doing so pricks his pinkie.

“The iron ring!”

His father doesn’t look at him.

How could he? Dear God! How could anyone!

Now Bhishma’s growls grow fiercer and shriller – and then that terrible cacophony of the scuffle takes over everything – even the rain. Bhishma issues a long interrupted cry of bark-growl-whimper. Krishna can hear the bodies wrestling, a body being picked up and tossed onto the floor, claws tearing into the flesh. Piercing cries of agony escape Bhishma’s mouth. Oh God! No, no. Not Bhishma. Not like this.

Out the back door, underneath the ladder, he finds a desiccated branch from the firewood pile. After wrapping the rag around the branch and knotting its ends, he pours kerosene onto the wrapped end from the lamp and ignites it with the hissing flame. Carrying the torch aloft, he climbs the ladder, several rungs at a time. When he opens the window, he hears goats bleat and jump. The breaking of the bamboo rods of the pen reaches his ears too late. By the time he opens the other window which overlooks the shed, a goat squirms and suddenly grows silent.

“Tiger! Tiger! Guhar! Guhar!

But even he can’t hear his scream over the relentless pour. Beside the orchard, on the rippling field, the stripes of an animal sparkle in the cameo of the lightning. The downpour has abated to a drizzle and the wind has quieted down. He comes back to the window that overlooks the orchard and waves the torch. The yard is sodden and empty, the only sign of the tiger’s visit is Bhishma’s low squirming coming from the shed.

When he tries to unbolt the main door, his father holds the latch.

“Not yet.”

“Let go of me!”

Krishna tries to wriggle his wrist free but can’t. Next thing he knows he has swung the torch at his father, the flame almost catching his hair, which sends him collapsing onto the pile of firewood. Outside in the shed, Bhishma is a lump of nauseating flesh and broken bones, black blood trickling from the edges. Seeing him, Bhishma tries to lift his head but can only manage the slightest stir. He reaches for Bhishma’s blood-smudged head and combs his hair. Bhishma looks at Krishna with his liquid eyes, wags his tail once, and then grows still.

The drizzle grows back to the downpour and the wind begins to shake the pomegranate trees.

“You let Bhishma die! You killed him.”

“We have to go inside.”

“Liar. Coward.”

“Enough now.”

“That’s why she left you for that man.”

His father raises his calloused hand but doesn’t bring it down on his cheek. For the first time, Krishna feels neither fear nor the anger to retaliate. Instead he feels sick to his bones. Within days of his mother’s disappearance, the news of her elopement with one of the debtors had reached every household. He looks straight at his father, and seeing his father’s bloodshot eyes and palsied lashes feels sorry for what he has said. But before he can say anything, his father disappears into the house and emerges with the hunting rifle slung on his shoulder and boots laced to the shins. A few steps down the flagstone path, he stops but doesn’t look back.

“If she really loved you, she would have never left.”

Krishna notices something cracked and liquid in his father’s voice tonight. As the footfalls start to fade, a wave of premonition and regret washes over him. When he turns around, his father is gone and all that remains is the impenetrable darkness.

 

Twenty years from now Krishna’s wife, while picking the ripe pomegranates, will suddenly drop to the ground and never wake, leaving behind a three-year-old son. Then he will see his second wife, after having her own son and daughter, treat his eldest like an outcaste, and will realize that his father didn’t remarry not because he didn’t find women nor because he caressed the false hope of his mother’s return, but because he knew too much about stepmothers. Only then will he understand the sacrifice his father made for him and realize how he had mistaken his father’s inability to express his feelings for his stoicism, and this moment will come to haunt him again and again as his son grows more gaunt and alienated with every passing day. This moment steeped in rain and darkness when his father gradually walks away from him toward the cornfield, fully knowing a man will be no match for a tiger, gun or no gun, when he could have run after him and said, “Papa, please. You are all I have now.” For the rest of his life on rainy nights, he’ll wake in the dark hours beside his mouth-breathing wife, Bhishma’s whimpers and his father’s “Huche! Huche!” ringing in his ears, and then unable to go back to sleep, he’ll go upstairs and place his ear on his son’s bedroom door hoping to catch the cadence of a stunted heart – but what he’ll hear is something unintelligible like his father’s hoarse coughs, the feelings all knotted and garbled at the throat, snarled clouds beyond the saving of even the rain.

 

One response to “Writing Nepal, 1st: Let the rain come down”

  1. […] for the ‘Writing Nepal’ competition we held over the summer with the help of Samrat Upadhyay. Shertok Samyak, Muna Gurung and Prabhat Gautam, our winners, are ones to watch. It was fitting, then, that we […]

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