A Game With Leaves
Kavi Yaga | Fiction
N. Supriya from class six had been absent all week, no explanation given, and the mother wasn’t picking up her phone. Supriya was a shy, eager girl who liked school and had never missed a single day. By Saturday, Anjali decided it was high time someone checked in on her.
She picked up her cloth bag, walked out of her one-room flat, and locked the door. As her chappals click-clocked briskly on the pavement, she remembered Supriya’s bright face, her eyes, her nose and tight plaits, the crisply ironed grey uniform. Anjali walked faster.
An hour later, when she reached the road between Indira Park and Ramakrishna Mutt, Anjali slowed down and caught her breath. At the large Gandhi statue, she crossed the street. The girl had said hers was the first floor flat in a grey building across from the statue. The flat was at the end of a corridor. Anjali rang the doorbell. The base of the doorframe had been painted turmeric yellow and kumkum red, and above it hung a string of plastic mango leaves. It was exactly the kind of neat and well-cared-for entrance she had imagined for Supriya’s house.
A man in a white ribbed banian and a lungi opened the door. He was completely bald, with a round face and wide mouth. Anjali tried to gauge his age, but it was impossible. The man, who could be Supriya’s father or her grandfather, regarded her with a polite and inquiring smile.
Anjali tugged on her bag and cleared her throat. “Sir, I am a teacher at Shishya School. I’ve come to ask if everything is okay with N. Supriya.”
“Sorry, madam? What?”
“I am a teacher—”
A woman with greying hair appeared behind him. “Who is this?” She wore a starched white Bengal cotton sari with blue designs, and her earlobes sagged with the weight of her flower-shaped gold earrings.
Anjali took a deep breath. “I am a teacher from Shishya School. I have come—”
The woman in the sari turned to the man. “Why are you making her stand there like that? She is a teacher.” She moved aside and swept her hand towards the room. “Please, you must come in, madam. Come, take a seat.”
Anjali did not want to go in and tried to protest, but the man shuffled aside. The woman stood waiting with such a firm and expectant air that Anjali felt she was being sucked into the living room. Anjali placed herself on the edge of the brown sofa. The man nodded and ambled across the hall into a room from which television sounds emanated. The woman strode into the kitchen.
The living room was cool and slightly dark. The walls were decorated with framed pictures of birds, paintings of flowers, and Sai Baba calendars.
The woman emerged with a glass of water and placed it beside Anjali on a side table topped with a plastic doily. The woman adjusted her pallu and sat down. “We have a lot of respect for teachers. My father-in-law was a teacher. Ask anyone in our village, and they will know him. What do you teach, madam?”
“English.” Anjali sipped her water.
“My daughter-in-law is also a teacher. She teaches biology. Everyone only cares about science and mathematics, but if you ask me, there is nothing wrong with languages. Which school did you say?”
“Shishya School. I have been there for five years.”
“I have not heard of it. But does that mean it’s not good? No! I’m sure there are many good teachers in Sishya School.”
Anjali nodded politely. The other teachers were not good. They came late to class and read from their textbooks in mechanical voices. Anjali, on the other hand, came in early, provided the children with many facts, and gave them numerous handouts and homework exercises. Yet, the children slouched in their chairs and seemed to wait only for the bell to ring. She often wanted to shake them. Did they attend school only to mark attendance? Her big success was her story session. She had started it, with the principal’s permission, to enhance English speaking fluency. After school, she read from the Panchatantra, Anderson’s fairy tales, and Amar Chitra Katha comics. Supriya loved the story sessions. She sat at Anjali’s feet and was always the first to arrive, the last to leave.
The woman was saying, “And that is why I tell my daughter-in-law that my granddaughters should also become teachers.”
Anjali straightened. “Madam, I have come to ask about your granddaughter. To inquire about N. Supriya.”
The woman regarded her for a moment. “Supriya?”
“Your granddaughter has not come to school for a week. Are her parents away? When can I speak to them? Her mother is not picking up her phone.”
“Madam, my two granddaughters, Neela and Sushma, live in Mumbai. I don’t know who you’re taking about.”
Anjali swallowed. “Supriya said this is her house. She described the building. Are there other flats on the first floor?”
“Only this one. But there is no girl named Supriya in this entire building.”
Anjali looked around the room. In the few minutes since her arrival, the light seemed to have faded slightly, causing the pictures on the walls to blur. Her head throbbed. Anjali’s voice rose. “Madam! I am certain this is Supriya’s house. She said it was. She is not the kind of girl to lie.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “There is some mistake.”
“Look, madam, I just want to know that she is OK.”
“How good that you’re so concerned about your student! But Supriya is not my granddaughter. As I said, my granddaughters live in Mumbai. They’re seven and five years old.”
Anjali’s eyes fell on a pile of brightly coloured books on a shelf. Pointing at the books, Anjali cried out, “See that Amar Chitra Katha on top! It’s the Tenali Raman one! I read it to the class just before Supriya went absent. What is it doing here?”
“Those are my younger son’s old comics.”
“It’s Supriya’s favorite. She said she had one at home. May I see it?”
The woman handed her the comic book and Anjali flipped through it, looking for Supriya’s name or any other sign that it was her book.
The man walked in, tightening his lungi. “Is everything OK? What is going on?”
Anjali shut the book with a thud. “That’s what I want to know. Where is my student, Supriya?” She heard a girl’s voice coming from the other room. She couldn’t make out the words, but the voice sounded like it could be Supriya’s. Anjali half rose. The book slid to the floor.
“Are you OK, madam?” the woman asked.
Seconds later, the girl’s voice merged into a jingle for Washing Powder Nirma. Anjali sank back into the sofa. She wiped the sweat from her forehead.
“Madam? Is everything all right?”
“To tell you the truth, nothing is all right. Supriya is absent.” Anjali took a few deep breaths. “It’s not just that. In school, the other teachers ignore me. I think they laugh at me in the staff room when my back is turned. None of my students care to listen. And now, Supriya is gone and without her, my stories falter. The endings fall flat. For the last story session, not a single child turned up.”
“Children can be thoughtless,” the woman said.
The man stood behind his wife’s chair with his eyes narrowed and his arms crossed. “Sorry. We need to leave soon. Bank work.” He strode across the room and opened the door. He cleared his throat.
Anjali asked for more water. When the woman brought her some, she drank it slowly.
The woman said, “It is not easy being a teacher.”
Anjali put down the glass and took her time walking to the door.
The woman placed a hand on her shoulder. “Madam. Please, go home and take rest. Everything will become clear with some rest.”
As Anjali walked through the neighborhood, she saw at least four small Gandhi statues or busts. Around each of them rose several buildings that were grey or streaked with grey or had greyed from lack of care. Supriya’s flat could be in any one of them. She walked from one building to the next, asking the residents of all the first-floor flats for N. Supriya. The girl was nowhere to be found.
Near Indra Park, Anjali stood on the sidewalk. Birds called excitedly from sprawling trees. A man threw millets on the ground. Green parakeets swopped down and pecked at the ground with their red beaks. Anjali dialled the girl’s mother. She tried again and again and again. The birds squawked and trilled all around, but the phone stayed silent.
That night, Anjali lay in bed with her face turned to the wall. She willed herself to sleep, but her mind was racing, her eyes were dry, her entire body felt rigid as iron. Sometime after midnight, she heard a creak. Moments later, there was a whooshing sound. She pressed her face into her pillow and shut her eyes tightly. The faint sound of singing drifted towards her, the high-pitched notes forming a strange, drawn-out tune. The singing grew louder and louder till it seemed to come from within her room.
She caught her breath and sat up. About four feet from her bed was the shadowy silhouette of a bird. Anjali blinked and peered into the darkness. As her eyes cleared, the bird came into sharp focus. It was the size of a ten-year-old and its body was like a sculpture made of clean white paper. It was a female (Anjali knew this immediately) and had a soft blue underbelly and talons like golden lotus flowers. Anjali tried to shout, but no sound came out. As she stared at the singing bird, the sounds fell into their places and the meanings of the words revealed themselves. The singing stopped.
Anjali jumped off the bed and cried out, “Who are you? How did you get into my room?” She found she was talking in the language of the bird with its complex rules of grammar and syntax.
The bird regarded her with its black eyes. “Through the door, of course!”
The bird glided to the chair by the window. Outside, the full moon looked almost transparent against the darkness and lit the wisps of clouds around it with a faint blue glow.
“The moon!” the bird screeched, pointing to it with a white wing.
Anjali gasped. Each of its feathers shone from within, like liquid drops of light. Every line in every feather was as precise as if it had been drawn by an artist.
“What are you looking at?” the bird said. “The moon or me?”
Anjali cleared her throat and spoke in a firm voice. “Leave immediately. You will regret it otherwise. Someone is coming any minute now. My husband.”
Hints of laughter rang in the bird’s voice. “You certainly have no husband.”
“I do. He’s coming just now. You had better leave.”
“No one is coming for you, Anjali.”
Anjali gripped the edge of the bed, “How did you know my name?”
“I know everything about you.”
“Why are you even here?”
“Does anyone know why they are where they are?” The bird folded her wings on her belly. “One’s position at any precise moment is either a matter of chance and randomness or a carefully arranged product of fate. It depends on what you believe.”
“What complete nonsense! Answer me – why are you here?”
“You answer. Why are you here? What brought you to this place at this time?”
“At this time of the night, where would I be but in my bed?”
“But why this particular room? In this particular city at this moment in time? What do you remember?”
Fragments of images rose in Anjali’s mind. Fallen white flowers glowing on a wet playground. Her fingers running along a school window frame. Mustard seeds popping in oil in a hot kitchen.
“Tell me what you see,” the bird said softly.
Anjali felt the room sway. Everything turned smoky and a flood of memories enveloped her. Once she began, she couldn’t stop the torrent of words. She told the bird about her mother, who loved her evening tea and her English romance novels; her father, who walked in the front garden every morning with his hands behind his back and his gaze fixed on the ground, circling from the bougainvillea tree to the front porch, around the car and back; her brother, who taunted her and made her dolls from sticks and strings and little scraps cut from old clothes. When she talked about her brother, she laughed.
The bird’s eyes were pools of black light. “So many memories.”
“I thought those memories were gone. But I was wrong. They have remained alive somewhere in the depths of my mind.”
“What else can you tell me?”
Anjali narrowed her eyes. “I am staring out the car window. My uncle is driving, my father is seated up front. My brother and mother are beside me. I rest my cheek against the glass.” The images blurred and everything went dark.
“What else?” the bird said.
“I can’t remember anything else. It’s a big blank.”
“Try. Come on.”
Anjali felt exhausted. “Look, it’s late. Why don’t you tell me what you want?”
“I’m sorry for disturbing you. But it’s inevitable, you know, given the way things are.”
She waited for the bird to explain.
“I have a question for you,” the bird said, instead.
Anjali scoffed. “I thought you already knew everything about me.” She was pleased with her logic, but the bird unnerved her with silence. “OK. Fine. What’s your question?”
The bird leaned forward, a warm, animal scent wafting from her body. “When you were a child, you had a favorite game. It was a game with leaves. You searched for dried, dead leaves. Once you had collected a handful, you would crush them and blow them into the wind. Why did you do such a peculiar thing?”
“What are you talking about? And what a useless question! All this tamasha in the middle of the night for that question?” Anjali sat up straighter. “Ask me something else.”
“I’ve come only to find the answer to this one question.”
Anjali crossed her arms on her chest. “Too bad, because I don’t remember.”
“You remember nothing of it?”
“Nothing. Maybe I never even played that silly game.”
The bird thought for a while. “I suppose that’s all I’ll get for now.” She rose from the chair.
“Wait!” Anjali said. “Can you tell me what happened to my student N. Supriya from Class Six? Do you know where she is?”
“I know as much as you do.”
“Well, I can’t think where else to look for her.”
“In that case, it’s best to get some rest.” The bird slid out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Anjali sprang from the bed, bolted the door, and shut the windows. What a strange day it had been. She replayed her conversation with the bird. She ran her hands over the chair the bird had been sitting in. She couldn’t feel any heat. Had it been just a dream?
She fixed herself some tea and thought about the game with leaves. Though she had no recollection of it, she was absolutely certain she did play it. But how did she know? And why had she collected those leaves, why had she crushed them? Was she driven by a child’s curiosity, simple joyfulness, or an urge to destroy further what was already dead?
The next morning, Anjali saw two women sweeping the streets outside. They gathered up discarded papers and plastic bags, dust, and fallen leaves into little piles. Anjali went out to look at a pile. She picked a peepal leaf that was almost perfectly intact. Blowing away the dust, she went back into her room and examined it in the sunlight. The thick midrib. Veins branching. This leafy skeleton, she thought as she placed it on the counter.
She went out again, picked a eucalyptus leaf and held it to her nose. Its tangy, crisp scent lingered like a ghost. For the rest of the day, she picked up dried leaves. Ashoka leaves, almond leaves, even curry leaves that had blown down from the neighbor’s veranda. She lined them up on the kitchen counter, the tables, the floor.
That night, she had a dream. Afternoon. Voices. Her uncle driving the car. Her uncle and her father talking. Her mother and brother asleep in the back beside her. Her cheek on the warm glass. Lorry tires grating against the road like a scream. The silence of the crash. White sheets, the odor of antiseptic. Her uncle, the only other person to survive, lying on the hospital bed next to hers. The creaking sounds of the fan, like moments ticking away in the land of the dead. The chill of the night air as she runs away from the hospital. Her muscles aching as she walks for hours, maybe days. The temple’s uneven stone steps, where she finally sleeps.
Anjali woke up shivering, even though the room was warm.
After sunrise, Anjali picked up her cloth bag and walked out the flat. As she hurried down the dusty road, the skies darkened with clouds. The bus journey took nine hours. Rain was falling hard and thick by the time she arrived. In her memories of childhood, the house had seemed enormous and stately. Now, its walls drooped in the rain. She entered without knocking.
Her uncle was having lunch. The cook—a short, thin man—poured water into a glass. Uncle’s square face was deeply lined, and his hair was patchy and white. He stared at her for a long time, his right hand suspended in the action of mixing rice and pickle. He motioned for the cook to set another plate.
Her uncle had the widest feet she had ever seen, splayed on the ground like roots pressing into the earth. The car crash had affected his hip joint. He moved with slow, shaking effort. At first, she and her uncle hardly spoke. In the evenings, they read in the front hall under an old tube light that flickered on and emanated insufficient light. They sat in chairs with woven cane fibers that needed re-working. On Sundays, they went to the market for the weekly provisions: daals and soaps, cleaning supplies, masalas.
Three mornings a week, Anjali and her uncle visited the family fields. They went to the mango orchard first. The mango trees had been planted by her grandfather—her uncle’s father—and now their gnarled trunks held thick branches weighed down with a profusion of fruit. They made sure the trees had been pruned and watered just enough. Next, they would check on the pigeon-pea farms and the peanut fields that were fed by the monsoons. They inspected percolation tanks for leaks and the lowering levels of water in the wells. They worried about the effects of viruses, the cost of petrol, vermin in the storehouse. They saw to their livestock: fifty goats, thirty milk cows, and over twenty chickens. Her uncle began assigning her tasks. She worked hard and soon she was able to meet his expectations.
Only once her uncle asked her why she had left him at the hospital. She told him that she had fled from the sound of the dead. She told him of her days in the temple, her years with the nuns in the orphanage where the dormitory’s cement beds had stood in a perfect line, like soldiers. She told him of her time as a teacher, about the children who didn’t care to learn. He listened quietly. After that, he spoke as if she had never been away, as if they had always been together. She found some comfort in this.
A month after Anjali’s arrival at her uncle’s house, the bird visited. Anjali showed the bird her new collection of leaves. “But still, I have no idea why I played the game with leaves.”
The bird leaned against the wall, her tail-feathers hanging. “OK, let’s play another game today. With words. A game with words. What’s your favourite word?” When she spoke, her beak hardly moved, but the sounds were sharp and clear.
“I need to think about it,” Anjali said. “I can’t answer just like that.”
“Aren’t you a teacher? Shouldn’t you know all the words?”
“Was a teacher. I know—melancholy. I like that word.”
“Really? Such a grandmother of a word. Such a tragedy queen, constantly shedding tears and singing sad songs. You can do better.”
Anjali flashed the bird a look of annoyance. “You try to do better. What’s your word?”
“That’s easy. Soaring. What better feeling than to soar freely in the sky?”
“I’ve got it now. My word is dappling.”
“Yes. Specifically, sunlight dappling through leaves. Sun and shade. Light and shadow. Two opposites that can’t exist without each other and yet each negates the other. All this, strung together into a single word in the present moment.”
“Now, that’s more like it!” The bird clapped, though her feathers hardly made a sound. “That’s what I would expect from Anjali Madam, teacher of words and teller of tales!”
Anjali shrugged. “That life is over.”
“Well, the way you were going about things, maybe it never even began.” The bird laughed.
At first Anjali felt hurt, but then she laughed along.
The bird visited once a month, with the full moon. She arrived just before midnight and left an hour before sunrise. They spoke about the events of the day, the existence of the soul, the new breed of cows, and many other topics. They never left the room. The bird always left before the first rays of dawn.
Once when the bird walked in, Anjali said, “Do you realize that almost a year has passed since we first met?”
“Isn’t it strange that you see the years passing only when you glance at the rear-view mirror? Anyway, for all this time, I have wanted to ask you something.” The bird pointed at Anjali’s spectacles. “What are those?”
Anjali looked at her in surprise. “You know so many things, you understand so many things. How is it that you’re ignorant about such ordinary things?”
“I’m looking for an answer, not another question.”
Anjali took off the spectacles and held them out. “These are my glasses.”
“What are they for?”
“Oh, they help me see.”
“What do they help you see?”
“Everything, I suppose. Flowers, faces, rain, trees.”
The bird considered her answer. “But you can see things in other ways. Do you know that poem? The one in which a yaksha begs a cloud to take a message to his wife who is far away?”
“I’ve read it. But why are we talking about a mythical yaksha character in a poem?”
“Tell me the story, Anjali. I want to hear it from you.”
“Once upon a time, a yaksha lived with his young and beautiful wife in the magnificent city of Alaka, situated in the great Kailasha mountain in the North. Alaka was ruled by Kubera, the Lord of Wealth. The yaksha, consumed by his love for his wife—“
“Lust, more likely,” the bird said.
“Who’s telling the story?”
“Consumed by love and lust for his beautiful wife, the yaksha neglected his duties.”
Anjali thought for a second. “Actually, I don’t know what duties.”
“Who’s telling the story?”
“OK. Fine. The yaksha was the night guard of the most famed garden of Alaka. One night, he crept away from his post to be with his wife. On that very night, Lord Indra’s elephant ran in and uprooted a row of priceless miniature trees from China, crushed Kubera’s favorite orange lilies, trampled on tender lotuses in—”
“I get the idea.”
“The elephant ruined the garden. Furious, Lord Kubera banished the hapless yaksha from the kingdom for a year. He was sent to live in a hermitage.”
“A fitting punishment, I have to say.”
“Months went by and the yaksha desperately pined for his beloved. When the monsoon approached, he could bear it no longer. The yaksha begged a passing cloud to take a message to his wife, a message describing his agony of separation, his exile, his homesickness. The yaksha also detailed the path the cloud would take to reach the beloved. He described everything. Lofty peaks and yellow plantain groves. Tender cheeks and the scorching sun. Sweet mangoes and fragrant lotuses, rivers like the arms of slender women.”
The bird hopped forward and threw her tail up. “Exactly. The yaksha described everything the cloud would see as it travelled across the lands: flowers, faces, rain, trees. You can say the cloud saw a whole world through the words of the yaksha.”
“And the yaksha also talked about his wife’s fawn-like eyes and heavy bosom, of the people of the city and their many amorous interludes.”
The bird sighed. “You’re missing the point, as usual. Through the yaksha, the messenger-cloud could imagine the world and therefore could see the world.”
“I suppose so.”
“And here you are, wearing these spectacles so you can see your world. Isn’t it preferable to imagine the world than to wear those awkward things?”
“That’s absurd!” Anjali laughed. “You must be mad to think so.”
After the bird had left, Anjali put on her glasses, took them off, and put them on again.
The following day, while she made her rounds of the mango orchard with her uncle, Anjali gazed up at the sky. She thought of the cloud messenger and a life fashioned from nothing more substantial than words. As she imagined herself drifting, looking down at the earth and up at an infinite sky, she felt herself growing lighter.
“What are you staring at?” Her uncle was standing beside her. “Are you wondering about the quality of the fruits this year? The yield is a matter of some concern.”
“I was thinking about a yaksha who sent a cloud messenger to his wife, Uncle.”
“It is a story. A poem.”
“I know it. But why are you thinking of stories? Of what use are stories?”
“But Uncle, when my brother and I were children, you told us stories about the books you read.”
The wind soughed through the branches as Anjali and her uncle walked back to the car.
“Don’t you like stories anymore, Uncle?”
“No story can match the beauty of even the smallest, most ordinary living thing.”
As they walked, she searched the ground for small living things.
Every night for the month of Kartika, the cook lit two oil lamps and placed them between circles of orange marigold petals. When the day of the new moon arrived, firecrackers announced Deepavali even before the sunset. The sky exploded in sound and light. Two boys ran through the streets waving their sparklers up and down.
Anjali and her uncle watched from the balcony.
“Do you remember the Deepavali when my brother got me ten Lakshmi bombs?”
“You were too scared to light them. I had to help you. It was a wonderful year. Right afterwards, we went to the ocean.”
“Yes! I wasn’t scared of that. I loved it. Do you remember the stories you read to my brother and me?”
Anjali’s family had lived in the city. Summers were spent here in the ancestral home, with Uncle. Uncle would greet Anjali and her brother with a spring in his step. He quizzed them about what they had learned in school.
“Shakespeare? Ahh! The quality of mercy is not strained. Merchant of Venice. Remember that. How about Tagore’s Geetanjali? No?” Eyes closed, right hand raised upward, his thick black curls grazing his ears. “The light dances, my love, at the center of my life. And Kalidasa! Let me tell you, children, about Kalidasa, whose words must have come from the gods themselves.”
Her uncle now laughed. “You and your brother! Quite a pair—how you loved stories.”
“Kalidasa. Tagore. Shakespeare. You started us young.”
He shook his head. “But that was many lifetimes ago. It doesn’t matter now.”
In the street below, the two boys placed three flowerpot crackers in a line. When they lit them, the flowerpots whooshed up fountains of light.
“What is it?”
“We both know, stories need not be real to be true. But what does it mean when what we see cannot be real? What if the evidence of our senses defies the logic of the world?”
“What are you talking about?”
“What seems most terrifying to me is not seeing things that can’t be real. After all, apparitions, visions, these are more common than we admit. But what if those visions seem absolutely normal? What fills me with the greatest dread is the illusion becoming normal, a matter of fact.”
Her uncle held her gaze. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
After a few moments, Anjali glanced away and laughed. “It’s just a silly question.”
“Are you sure? Tell me what—”
Anjali waved her hand in the air. “Don’t bother with it, Uncle. You know I’m always reading strange books. But look at those boys. It’s been so long, let’s light some crackers with them.”
Anjali and her uncle walked down to the street. Anjali lit a flowerpot with a sparkler from one of the boys. Her uncle lit a chakra that spun on the ground. The boys hollered as the chakra whirled, crackled, and spat out sparks.
Their storeroom was stocked with the things grown in their fields: ginger, rice stored in gunny sacks, leafy greens, gourds, drumsticks, lemons for pickling, and lentils. In the kitchen stood a jar of black-eyed peas. They grew black-eyed peas to strengthen the soil and planted them between straight rows of pigeon pea shrubs. When it was time for harvesting, she and her uncle oversaw the laborers who seemed to work as one, sifting through the plants, singing village songs. Surrounded by the smell of moist earth and green vegetation, she felt the urge to gather the crop. She started from a corner, stooping over broad leaves that hid the pea pods.
“You will need this.” Her uncle handed her a small bucket. He placed his hand under black-eyed peapods that had turned from green to a crackling light brown. These, he said, were ready for plucking. They harvested together, till her uncle’s hip began to hurt. Anjali continued for hours.
She ceased to think as she fell into a rhythm: pluck, pluck, pluck, throw the pods in the bucket, shuffle to the next plant, and on and on. Red-brown mud dug into her fingernails and coated her hair. Insects hummed and darted around in the open fields. With the heat of the sun on her back, she was enveloped in the musky, familiar odor of her sweat. Her muscles ached and when it was time to go home, her legs could barely carry her weight.
That night, the moon was full. Anjali wanted to stay awake for the bird, but as soon as her head touched the pillow, she fell into a deep sleep. She slept for hours with the sweet relief of a body whose muscles had been worked to the bone. She woke up dreaming of peapods and the smell of the things of the earth.
The bird’s visits became irregular. Sometimes, many months would pass between them. The bird gave no explanation.
Over the years, she and her uncle learned to divide their work. Anjali checked the accounts, managed the produce in the storeroom, and maintained the house. Uncle instructed the manager and laborers and negotiated with the buyers. Together, they celebrated festivals and visited the market. Anjali’s life became rooted in the rhythms of mornings that turned into nights, rainy seasons that dried out into summers, planting, harvesting, cleaning, repairing.
A week after Shivarathri, her uncle and the cook got the fever. While the cook recovered quickly, her uncle shivered with chills and complained of the heat. Finally, Uncle’s fever seemed to break.
That evening, Anjali persuaded him to eat a few spoons of rice and rasam. As she wiped his mouth, he stared at her face.
“You have my brother’s eyes,” he said.
“Soon you’ll be better. We can go to the fields together. We can visit the orchards and see the cows and the goats.”
“No one else can truly understand everything that we have lost.”
“And you’ll see the trees, the sky! The doctor says your fever is reducing. You’re eating a little more. I’ll call him again tomorrow and he will—”
Her uncle sat up. “Listen, listen!”
“The doctor said you must rest, Uncle.”
He lifted a hand to wipe his brow, then dropped it. He whispered, “Who do you talk to at night?”
She dabbed a towel to his face.
He said, “We’re not meant to live alone. What will you do when I’m gone?”
“Don’t talk like that, Uncle!”
“Stay for a while.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Shall I get you some water?”
He slowly leaned back against his pillows.
“Why is it so hot?” Turning his head, he fell asleep.
The next day, when she went to check on him, her uncle had lost control of his bowels. She and the cook took him to the hospital. The doctors put him in a ward with dying people who groaned all night long. Her uncle didn’t make a sound. All day, his unblinking eyes were fixed on a spot on the opposite wall, his face ossified into an expression of shock. The doctors said a severe infection had spread to all his organs. It took him a week to die.
When the cook brought her uncle’s body home, Anjali was lying in bed, her knees drawn to her chest. The cook told her there was much to be done. Uncle had to be cleaned and have his jaw closed with a thin gauze bandage. Anjali went to her uncle’s room and pulled all his clothes from his closet to find the best outfit. His ten shirts were exactly the same: white, made of a cotton-polyester mix from S. Kumars. His lungis had green or red temple borders and a gold zari band on the edge. On his corpse, these clothes appeared crisp, in a way they never had when he was alive. She combed his thin white hair and smoothed it on his head so that not a single wisp was out of place.
The cremation took place the next day. As a woman, she should not have been allowed to step onto the cremation grounds, but no one stopped her. She wondered if she would ever forget the sounds of fire feeding on human flesh. Cricks and creaks and little explosions of bone and muscle splintered the air. Everything solid was being burned away.
Through the rising flames she spied the bird’s sharp beak. Her large, round eyes. The bird wore loose white clothes and had a matching cloth wrapped around her head. Having disguised herself with great skill, the bird merged easily into the crowd of mourners. This was the first time the bird had appeared during the daytime, when others could see her. These people belonged to her uncle, and the bird’s presence among them was an abomination. Anjali screamed. One of the mourners held her tightly, comforting her. The bird carefully disengaged from the group and went away.
After the fire died, Anjali gathered the ashes and bits of bone into an urn. She decided to perform the last rites herself. Dressed in white, she carried flowers, incense, ghee, kumkum, small utensils, and other things for the pooja. The river was wide, the flow gentle. In stagnant pools, lotus flowers and tangled weeds floated near the banks. She and the cook made a fire with sticks. Pouring the ghee, she chanted all the mantras she knew. She walked into the river to scatter the ashes. The waters reflected the sky as she submerged herself in them. She came up for air and tilted the urn. The ashes washed out and floated away in ripples.
Anjali saw a movement on the shore. It was the bird, hidden in the shade of two trees.
“Go away!” Anjali shouted. “Go away!”
The bird didn’t move.
As she threw the urn at the bird, she slipped on the wet mud and fell into the river. She felt herself swallowing water. The cook pulled her out and guided her to a bench. He told her it was all right. He said it was just grief.
Anjali saw the bird watching from the shadows.
That night, when the bird came to her room, Anjali was waiting.
“What were you doing at my uncle’s funeral?” she shouted.
The bird moved past her and sat on the chair by the bed.
“My uncle’s funeral was not your place! How dare you show your face there?”
The bird arranged her wings neatly around her. “Don’t I have the right to be where you are?”
“No, you don’t. You’ve no right to me, you’re nothing to me. I had a perfectly good life without you.”
“Oh, please! What life was that?”
“I was a teacher in Shishya School.”
The bird cocked her head to one side. “Can you produce any certificate? A letter of employment?”
“They’re all in the flat, I left them there.”
“I had students. A sweet girl called Supriya from Class Six who—”
“Where is this sweet girl?”
“I don’t know. She stopped coming to school.”
“Was she ever really there?”
“Of course! She used to sit at my feet and listen to my stories. She had looped braids. She had a dreamy smile.”
“So what if her braids were looped or straight? Has anyone else actually seen this girl?”
“Look, I did have a life before you came along. I had a brother who made me cloth dolls.”
“Ridiculous. What kind of brother would do that? He’d be too busy playing cricket and hanging out with friends.”
“Just stop it! I knew those people well. You can’t say I didn’t.”
“But can you know anyone really? I mean think about it. All you can know of someone is that person as a distorted reflection in the water-wave of your judgements and preconceived notions.”
“Don’t tell me my family was some water-wave of perception! You’ve seen my uncle from the window. In fact, I’ve kept Uncle’s things exactly as before, all his white cotton lungis and identical shirts from S. Kumars. They’re still folded up in his old room, anyone can see them.”
“Who says you didn’t buy all those things from S. Kumar’s to make it appear that a sad and broken man had once lived in that room?”
Anjali sprang to her feet. “How dare you talk about my uncle like that! You arrogant, repulsive creature.”
The bird sat still, her head tilted to the ceiling.
Anjali rushed at the bird with clenched fists. “Say something! God, I hate your horrible face.”
When the bird still didn’t reply, Anjali spun around and strode to the window. She clutched at the windowsill. “I wish you were dead.”
Outside, insects crooned, a stray dog whined, something rustled in the bushes.
“Tell me a story,” the bird said.
“Why won’t you leave me alone?”
“Tell me the story!” the bird screeched.
Anjali’s vision turned foggy. The fog coalesced into swirling grey clouds. From the clouds, images emerged. An old peepal tree, a white-blue sky, a girl bent under the branches, playing.
Anjali found herself speaking. “Many years ago, there lived a girl from the city who visited her uncle in the ancestral home every summer. While her brother, father, and uncle oversaw the farm work in the nearby family fields, the girl played under the shade of nearby trees. Her friends were two dolls that her brother had made for her so she wouldn’t be alone. The dolls were soft because they were made of cloth. The red doll was Shaalu, the blue doll was Maalu. Maalu, Shaalu, and the girl played seven stones and card games. They pretended to be warrior queens and doctors and mothers. One day, as she played hide and seek, the girl tripped over a rock.”
Anjali absently rubbed her elbows as she paced the room.
“As her father carried her away, she cried and cried, not because of the pain in her ankle or her arm from the fall, but because Maalu and Shaalu were still hiding under the peepal tree, beneath dried leaves and sticks. Her brother promised to find them the next day, but he couldn’t.”
Anjali walked to her bed and sat down. “Later, the girl searched and searched, but never found them. Instead, when she smelled the leaves and sticks and soil in which the dolls had been buried, she was filled with a strange sense of peace.”
“Ahhh!” The bird cocked her head. “Tell me more.”
“Decades later, farm workers were harvesting black-eyed peas and singing their songs. She started to harvest with them. She plucked some of the pods that had dried completely and when she held them to her nose, she remembered the smell.”
“What was the smell?”
“It’s hard to describe. The smell of all earthly real things.”
“What makes the things of the earth real? Is it that you can see them, smell them, touch them?”
Anjali considered the question. “I see you. I smell you. I can touch you. Does that mean you are real? I cannot any longer see my uncle or smell or touch him. Does that mean he was never real? No. What makes the things of the earth real is decay.” She paused, then took a quick breath. “My family left the earth, one by one. My uncle went out like a great tree dragged up by its roots. Listen! We live in the soil, not just on it. We live inside the soil, because from the moment we’re born, we’re destined to be within its darkness.”
The bird slowly nodded and said in a low voice, “I understand. Now I understand.”
Anjali scoffed. “Don’t tell me you understand this only now? I thought you knew everything!”
“I don’t know everything. I only know you.”
“Well, now it’s done. You asked me a question years ago. I’ve answered it. What will you do? Will you leave?”
“I now have no reason to stay. Do you want me to leave?”
“Yes! I’m sick to death of you. Get out, get out!”
The bird glided away and, when she reached the door, she stretched her wing to the doorknob. She turned and nodded. As the door opened, moonlight suffused the bird’s body with ethereal light, throwing bare the graceful angles of her thin bones. How had Anjali forgotten the bird’s beauty? Having known her for years, she had begun to think of the bird as nothing more remarkable than a table or a stranger in the marketplace. But the bird was a marvel, a thing of wonder! Now Anjali was struck by the dark luminosity of her eyes, the quiet dignity of her every movement, the gentle curve of the retreating back, those delicate, luminous feathers. Without her, would the bird have a place in the world? Would the bird cease to exist, or would she befriend someone else? Anjali couldn’t decide which of these would cause her greater unhappiness.
Gripping the edge of the bed, Anjali begged the bird to stay. The bird hesitated, then began flapping her wings. The bird screeched and the winds swirled around her as she rose off the floor. Anjali’s hair blew back. The room reverberated with the sound of beating wings. The bird rose higher and when her golden talons were about three feet from the ground, she floated to the chair. She slowed the beating of her wings and descended. Anjali sat on the bed, the bird in the chair. For a long while, they sat in silence, gazing at each other.
The bird began to sing. It was the first tune from all those years ago. Listening to its lilting notes, stories of any other kind of life seemed absurd. Anjali understood that the song was a lullaby. She lay in bed as the bird watched. As she closed her eyes, the last thing Anjali saw was the bird’s feathered head hiding the silver moon and when she awoke, the first thing she saw was her bird in the chair. The orange light of the morning sun illuminated the beak, the feathers, those unblinking eyes.
Kavi Yaga lives in Hyderabad, India with her husband, Hari. They have two grown sons and an excitable golden retriever.
Her travel memoir, Walking in Clouds, was released in December 2018 by HarperCollins, India. Her story, “You Can Be More” was runner-up for the 2021 Calvino Prize for Speculative Fiction and will be published in One Story. Her work has appeared in The Hindu, The Bombay Review, Killing the Buddha, Out of Print, and more. Kavi Yaga has received a Yaddo Fellowship.
In previous avatars, she was a software engineer in Chicago and a developmental economics researcher in South India.