CW : Reference to suicide, violence
The mofussil bus threw a cloud of dust and smoke on Lokesh’s face before he could turn away after getting down. The peepal tree stood at the same place, he noted; and the platform around it. Only the wastrels and old men who sat under it, a few chewing betel nuts meditatively, and others gossiping and observing who came to the village and who left it, seemed to have changed. Fifteen years would have sent a few to their graves and others back to their homes.
He hoisted his light backpack on his right shoulder and lowered his head. And walked briskly down the mud road that led to the village, before any of those peepal tree gossips started asking him questions. The questions playing in his head were already beginning to burst at his temples.
Round the bend, stood the same old tamarind tree. Lush with green leaves and filled with pink buds. Would Kamala be still sitting up there, on one of its low branches, and watching him? Would she jump down in front of him and thrust forward her palms filled with half-ripe tamarinds?
Coming here was a bad idea.
He walked past the tree, past the jowar and sugarcane fields, inhaling the sweetness of the unripe grains. And resisted the temptation to dig the little whorls left on the side of the mud road to make the ladybugs scramble out.
The Government Higher Secondary School building, behind the sunflower field, floated up on the horizon. If he walked into the field now, would Kamala be still digging her hands in the black soil beneath the crop and spray a handful of dirt on his school uniform? Then run away giggling and turn her bright face to him on being caught, and sing “You are my sun!” before smearing his face with more dirt?
Coming back here was the stupidest idea.
He took a deep breath and picked up the pace. The handpump close to the school looked new. The school had been given a coat of fresh paint and a few colourful wall arts showed cheerful children pointing at the list of constitutional rights and duties. Would Kamala be sitting at the back bench, alone, if he peeped into the window of class VA?
It is not too late. Maybe I should return to the bus stop and wait for the next bus to take me back to Bidar.
The track from school onwards still branched into three. From what he remembered, the first one led to the village head and other keepers of the place. The second one led to where his family had lived, and then fled. The third one led to…his hands trembled.
I should definitely turn back.
He trudged on the loose soil the bullock carts had left behind. And took the second lane. It was afternoon. The sun beat down on the bare brick structures that had slanting, tiled roofs. His feet stopped at a bylane. If he went down there to the fifth house on the left and opened the door, would he still find his mother crying sitting next to his father’s bloodied body? And screaming “you brought this upon us!”
I am sorry Appa! I didn’t understand your world.
He turned back and headed to the place that had started it all. To the school.
The main gates were closed. The side gate was left open. The hedge close to the corridor was still pale green duranta. He moved past the shadows of the pillars along the empty corridors. The cobalt blue windows and doors of the classrooms were shut. It was a Sunday.
He stopped at IIIB. If he walked into the classroom, would he find Kamala offering her lunch to him after he was left crying beside his spilled lunch by the boys who found his stammer loathsome?
Nausea overtook him. He moved to the quadrangle that still had the football field. If he kicked the ball into the goalpost without a net, would Kamala jump up and down clapping and cheering him, unmindful of wrathful eyes that befell her?
A flight of steps took him back to his adolescence. He felt a knot in his stomach as he walked past the closed door of IXC, behind which he had whispered “You are my first and the only one” to Kamala, and didn’t know its reverberations would result in an earthquake in the village.
You naïve little fool!
Even as he felt his feet grow heavier, he knew he had to go back to the village, into its heart. He had come this far. There would be no turning back now. If his insides hurt like someone had run a sickle through him, it was only fair.
As he made his way back, he felt more than a couple of curious eyes on him. Yet, he dragged himself to the well at the centre of the village. His head swam as he looked down its dark depths. If he jumped into it, would he be able to save Kamala? And tell her it doesn’t matter their fathers fought over their castes. They, the educated, the new generation would prove there are no such divisions?
I am so sorry Kamala! I wasn’t strong enough.
“What are you doing?” a voice called out and a pair of hands grabbed his shoulders.
Lokesh’s mind went blank for a second. Then, his gaze moved from the hands on his shoulders to an old shocked face.
“You look…familiar,” the jagged voice from the old face struggled to place him.
A small group had already gathered around the well. The kids looked fascinated. A few elders looked flabbergasted.
Lokesh looked up at them and the row of houses behind them; a few tiled and a few thatched. If he walked into their houses, would they still rant, “How dare you pollute our homes after your dalliance with a lower caste girl maimed your father?”
A man in jeans and a kurta made his way through the growing crowd. He came forward with an apologetic smile.
“Deputy Commissioner Mr. Lokesh Patil? I am Raj Paswan- Village Panchayat Secretary, sir. I just received information from your assistant. If only you had informed me about your visit, sir. I would have arranged for a proper welcome.”
Lokesh nodded at him.
“No need Mr. Paswan. This is not an official visit.”
“Even so, to think you chose to visit our remote village a day after taking charge, what an honour sir.”
You have no idea! This is the only place that can take me home.
The young fellow looked earnest.
“Mr. Paswan, I was just wondering… would you mind coming along?”. Lokesh gestured towards the third lane that led to where Kamala once lived.
It was dusk when the last bus for the day trundled on the road. Lokesh felt the breeze from the window graze his face and heaved a sigh of relief. The young village panchayat secretary had a fire in his belly and was eager to do his bit, in getting the children to enrol in the school, and the adults to live without throwing slurs. A daunting task; smoothened a little by the technology brought in by the rolling years.
Lokesh felt a heavy weight lift off from his chest. All those years of guilt, pain, and anger lodged like crickets in his brain had quietened a bit. It was a clear night sky. If he looked up, would he see Kamala twinkling at him?