It was in the fourth year of my renunciation that a white mouse began to haunt my dreams. We would always be seated, facing each other, in a lone hut on a secluded island. Outside our door, the sea struggled wildly against the relentless storm clouds; the mouse and myself remained dry in the enclosure. After a long while, the mouse would begin to make a fire with the tinder that lay between us.
“There is a raft approximately a furlong from here”, he said. “Once the storm ends, we must find our way home. If we head that way”, he pointed east, “we will land on our shores, but the journey is long and the sea is unkind. Westward, we would have to pass through many a foreign land. Whether we are to be met by hostility or kindness, I know not. Talk of this is immaterial, for only you can choose our path. My concern is a bit more immediate; the raft can barely seat one and I am a tiny thing. My bones will surely break if you are rocked too hard by the crashing waves. Would you mind my being in the folds of your robe, once we set out?”
I kept silent, unsure, while the little mouse worked tirelessly at the flames. I would remain silent until I woke up, lightning still vivid in my mind’s eye.
Retired Colonel P.L. Thomas capped his Parker fountain pen and paused to read the draft which was meticulously scrawled across the first page of his brand new leather-bound. It now struck him that, maybe, justifying the foreign monk’s presence in the Himalayas was not as necessary as he had first deemed it. He would establish the protagonist as a traveller, like Hiuen Tsang or Al-Beruni, and that should be that. He did not, for instance, have to mention who had dubbed the Sinhala Buddhist as ‘Al-Serendip’ or where he had landed before making his way to Kashmir via Khwarazm. He was merely attempting a short piece of prose, to begin with at the least, not constructing some elaborate history for the man.
He crossed the text with a neat blue line, turned the page and began again.
On the fourth day of leaving Srinagar, we- along with some traders we had met in the border town- began to scale the pass between Kashmir and Tibet. Sometime before sunset, Kalhan, the minister’s son who had volunteered to accompany me till the other side, suggested we break in the first cave along our way. The leader of the trader’s party concurred and we were able to find a suitable site to set up camp soon enough.
I had not realised my exhaustion until the moment I lay down on the cold ground. Above me was the same ornamentation I had encountered in the western mountains. They were unmistakably shaped like sea-shells. An anomaly for certain and though my curiosity was piqued once again, I decided to sleep for the time being. I would ask Kalhan about them later…
The colonel paused again, this time distracted by the movement at his door. The knob was already turned; he watched, irately, as it was carefully edged open. Thressiama Thomas cautiously crept into the study looking apologetic. There was much cause for suspicion, as the ever-haughty primary-school principal was never known to be timorous.
“Get on with it already. What do you want?”
Feeling her husband’s stern eyes gauging her, the same eyes she could brazenly ignore when grievously at fault, she flinched.
“No, no. I don’t want to disturb you. I’ll tell you after your work.”
“You’ve disturbed me already. Now, tell me. What is it?”
“Promise me, you won’t be angry.” He nodded.
“Isaac’s results had come last week. He didn’t tell us but he’s failed ag…”
He flipped his table over and onto the ground toppled all its contents, breaking the porcelain vase and the ink bottle. He got up and stormed out of the room, muttering under his breath, “The bastard! I’ll kill him this time!”
Thressiama stood petrified by the door.
Later in the evening, after Isaac, whose thighs had been marked a vicious red with a bamboo cane, had furiously left his father’s house to spend the night elsewhere, the couple returned to the study.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have been that harsh. I just want what is best for him.”
“Well, it’s too late now.” Through the evening, Thressiama’s blood had returned to her veins, as with every strike her son received, she had lesser reason to be sorry.
“He will come back.” The colonel bent down to pick up his leather-bound and turned the pages. It was drenched in water and ink, and his writing, if visible at all, was barely legible.
It was an omen, he decided. He was a practical man and such frivolous pursuits were beneath him. He would write something practical, if he should ever write at all. Once it had dried, he kept the leather-bound on his shelf, next to his medals, family photo and the fossilised shells he had excavated while in service, as a reminder to this.
“Do you know where I found those?” Thomas asked his grandchildren, Tessa and Tarun, as they studied the two perfectly-fitting pieces of prehistoric rock their grandfather had just given them. It was New Years’; Isaac had brought his wife and children to visit his parents at Pathalakkara. The last time they had come was a few months after Tarun was born. The colonel had shrunk considerably in the eleven years that had passed and his remaining hair had turned into a stark white. Isaac’s mother, despite the constant complaints of an ailing back, had managed to maintain her health through the years. Isaac often offered to take them to Bangalore to stay with him but his father, stubborn as he was, refused to “live off someone who never even visits once a year”.
“We were testing some explosives in Himachal when an officer found them. Probably cracked open in the blast. Fellow who found them didn’t care for them much so he gave it to me.
“But Achacha, this is an old seashell. You couldn’t have found them so up North.” Tessa, the older one, wondered aloud.
“India was a part of Africa once. An ocean separated it from China and the Himalayas are where they eventually met”, Tarun said dryly. It was the first time he had said a word, save the necessary greetings, since arriving.
“Kutti sayyipe knows all this already?” the old man beamed with adoring eyes. Tarun had already withdrawn back into his shell. All he wanted was to leave. It was not the lack of cable, as his mother reasoned, that bothered him.
A week before, he had been the strongest advocate for coming here but a few days before leaving his end of term results had come. He had barely managed to pass Hindi yet again and despite his best attempts to keep his scorecards hidden until after the trip, they were found out when his mother swept through his room the day before leaving. When his father came home later in the evening he was diligently awarded the cane twenty times on each palm. He promised in between his sobs, as many times before, that he would score higher marks in the next exam. He had barely spoken since.
Thressiama chachi, who had suddenly taken tediously to household work on retirement, poked her head out into the living room with dinner summons. She had worked incessantly for almost two hours, along with her daughter-in-law to whom she was passing down the recipe, on what she now called her ‘world famous kappa–biriyani’.
After dinner and evening prayers, everyone wished each other for the New Year before retiring for the night. Isaac and his family had to wake up early the next day for the journey back, and his mother would wake up before them to pack a little something for the way. The old colonel too slept earlier than usual, knowing that he would be caught in the morning’s activities.
That night, thunder, and lightning to some degree, woke everyone up mid-slumber. Isaac tried sleeping with a pillow over his head, but to no avail. And as the divine fireworks subsided, everyone’s alarms began to ring.
On the journey to Pathalakkara, Tarun had been day-dreaming about their vehicle meeting with an accident. Now, on the way back, the seventh-grader was imagining running away. He would first have to decide if the money he could get by selling the fossil would be sufficient for the endeavour. If it was, then what? His father had run away to Bombay once with no money in hand, or so he claimed. Maybe he could do that.
He would take his time and think this through. There really was no need to hurry with this. In any case, he had to first find out how much the thing was worth before making a call.
Words: Jones Benny John
Edits: Sanjana Takru
Illustration: Nandita Ratan
Jones is a graduate from Srishti, Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Contemporary Art Practices. While at college, he tried his hand at few things, from illustration to poetry to video production, but decided to stick to just writing stories for the time being. His interests are fleeting but for now he is into post-colonial literature and comparing Asian mythologies.