The evening had moved in on him almost unsuspectedly, grey cloud leading to grey drizzle. It was only when the bullfrogs started croaking that he realised it was dark. They were never really vocal while it was light. The pond was a remnant of what was once a jheel, a sort of watering hole for wild elephants. Those days were long past. The jheel had now shrivelled with age, drying slowly at the edges, each sliver of caked mud being grabbed by frantic peasants as they went about adding to their holdings. The village would soon be arriving at the pond, he thought.
He had always known that a day would come when his window would open out on nothing. Simply nothing. It bothered him. Nothingness was perhaps something you could put into a void. But you couldn’t. The void would not be a void if you could place something in it. And one had to distinguish nothingness from somethingness. If nothing was nothing, you really couldn’t get hold of it and plonk it some place, certainly not in a nonexistent bowl which went by the name “void”. He was clutching at the straws of his logic and wouldn’t let go.
The Bhikshu started mumbling. It didn’t strike him that his speech was a bit slurred and his listener was not attentive. You could not accuse him of lip reading, for the fellow he was speaking to had his back to the Bhikshu. And the Bhikshu was on one of his trips to the past. In his younger days, he was saying, he had wondered about things like whether existence had a hold, however tenuous, on permanence. After all, you lived, you ate, drank, loved, died. All this could not be maya or mithya. He had left all that behind. Now all he wanted was tranquillity, the night around him, the chirr of the cicada and the croak of the bullfrog.
For some months now he had grown used to talking to the scarecrow. The guava orchard was an adjunct to his hut and the scarecrow stood there tall and erect and bald, for the raffia had been torn from the coconut shell which passed for his head. Suppose people overheard? That kind of anxiety flooded his consciousness at times and faded away. It was in the fitness of things that the Bhikshu’s scarecrow should be tonsured like a monk.
At first he had been hesitant about opening up to the scarecrow. People might think he’d gone mad. Knowing that the scarecrow was truly old, he wished to speak to him in a dead language. The trouble was he didn’t know any dead or dying language, except for a shloka or two and the Gayatri, which in any case he could only mutter to himself, for he was not high up enough on the caste ladder to recite it. But that was all in the past tense. He had left those fears behind him as one discards a tattered garment. He had moved on.
He was a latecomer to the Buddha. It was not easy for him to recollect how he came into the fold. It happened. You came upon a stream and drank of its waters. You don’t have to explain. You drank because both thirst and water were present at that particular moment. But, as he told the scarecrow, even that was not wholly true. Reality is always larger than truth. Yet each fits snugly into the other. He wasn’t sure if the scarecrow had understood.
Every now and then his mind moved into momentary clarity and he would become conscious of the whine and zing of insects, start wondering if he would be there the next morning to see the dew glittering on the grass, always presuming there would be dew. A time comes in a man’s life when he takes nothing for granted. That moment had arrived for him.
Will and volition had not been his strong suits. His people were not happy. His mother’s tongue had clicked like a lizard’s. How had doubt leaked into him, she asked? What induced a man to change his gods? There are never any answers to such questions. I haven’t changed my gods, Mother, I have just moved into a system where there are no gods. How can that be? You can’t have a sky without gods—or birds. Don’t we all know that the Buddha is another avatar of Vishnu? You think your mother is so ignorant, just because she can’t sign her name!
He had turned footloose, moving from vihara to vihara, an exile not from his faith so much as from the times, and a family is a part of the times. He moved north towards the mountains. He would work as a farmhand and then get bored with the place and move on. The terraced fields were pale green with rice shoots. The gompas took his breath away, the air clear as crystal, gold-painted roofs, gilded pavilions aflutter with pennons, awhirl with prayer wheels. He fell in love with the autumn amber of the light here. Everyone was friendly, even the Bhutia dogs. He worked in the buckwheat fields scattered around the gompa estate. He got to know the shepherds, even their sheep dogs seemed to recognise him and did not growl. And he picked up lore from the scriptures, and knew all the stories of the past lives of the Sakyamuni. Within some years he became a fixture on the landscape.
A time came when the Abbot changed and the monks started warning him. You will have to give up this, you’ll have to give up that. What is life if not full of bonds? But he came to know how the other monks smiled their non-committal smiles and, when cornered, he parted his lips as blandly as they ever did.
He wrote to his mother—it was some years since he had seen her. He wanted to become a bhikshu he wrote. Alarm bells started ringing within the family. He received letters, never mind if they reached him a month late, asking how he would cope with giving up everything. They didn’t have the words and didn’t want to be seen as crude, semi literate though they were. But he knew what they meant: it was all very well reading the scriptures or closing your eyes and swaying with the prayer wheel. But there was life beyond the pages of a book. He would realise that only when he renounced the world. Renunciation? He had nothing to renounce. If you have nothing, you shed nothing. That’s what he wanted to write back, but never did.
Those uneasy dreams of his started two years or so after monkhood. He began hearing voices, mostly his mother calling someone by name, he didn’t know who, and saw his house crowded with people, string cots laid out in the guava orchard. He dreamt about a woman walking in her dream, her skin grey as chalky clay, her face sand-smudged, her hair dotted with salt crystals. The burnt-leaf face of his mother flitted through this dream world, her fragile skin turning to flakes, shredded tissue, moth wings.
When the dreams stopped abruptly he realised Mother was dead. The Abbot, all of a sudden one day, put his hand on his head and said, “Son, you’ve had a trying time.” Out of the blue, just like that. That confirmed him in his belief. A year later, calculating from the last time he had dreamt of her, he proceeded to his village, and was not one whit surprised to find he had arrived two days before her barsi, death anniversary. He fed the Brahmins, performed all the rites and within a few days left for the gompa once again.
This time the solitude troubled him, the scent of the pine, the wind through the cedars. Things were too clean here, rice fields too lush, the river too blue, river-foam too white. This had nothing to do with reality as he had known it down below, the poverty and squalor, and it struck him hard. That there was life. This sojourn, in and around the gompa, was a temporary assignment in paradise. The monks didn’t restrain him as he left for his wanderings in the plains.
From one village to another he would walk, the dust of the doab, fine and powdery, turning to mud on his sweating shins. He would squat under a shady tree and when the villagers came to him, showing their palms or even horoscopes, he would send them away. He didn’t deal in this kind of hocus-pocus, he would tell them. But he would go to their schools and find the schoolmaster missing, and he would start talking to the children and teach them. People would bring him food. A room would be cleared and made available. He would settle disputes, chant his mantra, move his little prayer wheel and tell stories about the Buddha. The hare story always entranced the children. How the hare, none other than the Buddha in his earlier life, had nothing else to give the anchorite, and so had asked the Buddha to prepare a fire, and had offered himself as a meal.
One day, as the Bhikshu moved from hamlet to hamlet, he skirted a jheel which he seemed to remember, entered a village that looked familiar and found he was back home.
The house had gone, for the roof had caved in and one didn’t know when the mud wall, scribbled over with moss, would disintegrate. He put up a reed hut and a thatch roof over it. The guava orchard was untouched, and the scarecrow. Talking to the scarecrow, he found, was better than talking to someone in his dream. Mr Reed-and-Hessian was not a spectre; he occupied space, boasted of an outline, a form. The whole trouble with dialogue was you needed others.
For a brief moment he was aware that he had been babbling away like that mountain brook near the monastery. He was not sure if the scarecrow heard him at all, for the fellow had not turned round even once. There were moments he thought the scarecrow would seek cover from the drizzle and move in and he half expected to hear the swish and rustle of his coming.
The light has to go out when you are fading, but there was no light here in any case. The drizzle had stopped but the trees still dripped. The wind disappeared somewhere in the silence that seemed to engulf the place now. The owl hooted just once. It was no night for his soliloquies. He slept fitfully, his dreams incoherent and suddenly crowded with faces he half remembered. He thought the moon had come out but all that had flickered in his dream was the round face of a tonsured monk. Even that faded, just as dream and sleep and senses were fading. If the rain could walk out of the sky and leave, what was he doing here on terra firma, which was after all just a sense impression? That was what he had been taught at the gompa. Images came into his mind and frayed into nothingness. A crow’s-nest face stood out, and an arm stretched towards him, the palm shaped like a crow’s foot. He wanted to call out “Mother”, half expecting her to come and others to follow, including the scarecrow, still as a Buddha in the stillness of the orchard. Somewhere in the shadowy hinterlands of his fading awareness he half expected to hear the swish and the swirl and the lollop of his coming.
This short-story is published in Oct-Dec issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme for the issue is “The Body”.
In this issue, vascular surgeon Ambarish Satwik writes on his days as a student of anatomy, Paromita Vohra traces the journey of gym-sculpted hairless bodies in Bollywood, Manjula Padmanabhan draws and describes her childhood pains, dancer Leela Samson writes on challenges faced by an Indian classical dancer, Shougat Dasgupta laments soullessness in sports, Sandip Roy delves into the story of India’s first Mr Universe who died at 104 and Jannatul Mawa reveals a lot in her award winning series where she clicks employers and their maids seated together. Elsewhere, Prashant Panjiar’s quixotic photo essay captures the “we-are-like-this-only” aspect of Indians. Kishore Singh explores the connection, if any, between where an artist lives and his work. We also have the last poem by the celebrated French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, written shortly before he died this year in our Fiction and Poetry section.
Feature image illustration credits: Tanuja Ramani