Fowlers by Deepak Sharma (Hindi Fiction)

Translated by: Vinita Prakash and the Author

Deepak Sharma
“Listen to this,” Wifey went into her act as soon as I got back from office, “Ma has issued a fresh decree today. Jeeji’s’ birds have to be brought back here.”
Jeeji had died a fortnight ago. At her husband’s place. The husband she had acquired five months back. Of her own accord. Through a court marriage. Despite my disapproval. 
“Do not tick me off with Ma’s ridiculous whims!” I was irritated, “Get me my evening tea.”
“As if it pleases me to listen to her rubbish all day long.” 
“Okay now, stop, I shall go to her right away and tell her to behave…”

Ma was reading The Ramayana in her room.
“What will satisfy you, Ma?” I shouted at her, “First you said we have to bear the funeral expenses and I bore them. Then you said we have to dash clothes and cash for that loathsome family and I went ahead with that rigmarole too. What is this new rubbish regarding the birds now?”
“You tell me,” Jeeji’s death had taken the lid off Ma, “If those birds perish there, can Prabha’s soul rest in peace?”
“And you tell me, Ma,” I fumed, “Should Varsha stop taking care of Vishu and start taking care of those birds instead?” 
Our son, Vishu, was two years old then.
“ I will take care of them, not Varsha.” 
“You? But how?”
A stroke had left her left side paralysed. Three months ago.
“I shall, I will,” she wept.
“Do not argue with Ma,” Wifey came into the room with a changed strategy. She feared my indignation against Ma may disappear if I continued to stay there. “Come and watch TV with Vishu while I prepare a snack for the tea…”


Vinita Prakash
(ii)

I see Jeeji that night wandering in a tall building with me…
Halting suddenly in front of a door….
‘Come,’ I pull her by her arm…
‘Want to see the dark?’ she asks, bringing into play the same playful manner when, as a child she would wave her water brush over her magic drawing book and ask, ‘Want to see magic? with each stroke manifesting colored figures on blank pages…
‘No,’ I get scared, 
‘Let’s go…’, says she.
We move towards another door that opens into the light…
A large crowd is gathered there, helter-skelter. 
Jeeji turns back abruptly…
‘What is it?’ I follow her.
‘Satish is looking for me,’ she goes straight ahead, leading herself away from the crowd…
“Which Satish?’ I forget Satish is her husband’s name.
‘He will jump down my throat if he sees me,’ she whispers.
I turn to the crowd…
It is organized now…
Seated on chairs arranged in neat rows.
I begin to recognize the chairs…
These had been hired by Satish…
On the occasion of Jeeji’s   ‘Rasam Kiriya’.
For two hours only…
I dash pell-mell towards Jeeji…
(iii)

I woke up with a start.
Wifey and Vishu were sound asleep. Lying on our bed, beside me.
I looked up at the clock.
It was half-past three.
I got out of the bed and went to the courtyard.
The light meandering from the street-lamps lent long shadows to the flower-pots. With some of their outside edges joining each other upon the paved floor of the court-yard.
I do not remember how long ago it was when Jeeji and I were playing hide-and-seek, one night, under Father’s supervision and it was Jeeji’s turn to hide and mine to see. I had failed to locate her anywhere inside the house and had just about begun to scream when she appeared forthwith. 
‘Where were you?’ I had asked.
‘In the court-yard’, she had giggled.
‘In the dark?’ 
These street lamps came much later.
‘I am not afraid of the dark.’ She had replied.
‘Nor should you be,’ Father had taken my hand in his,’ the dark is a trusted ally. It gives us such a grand cover…’
I leaned against the wall and began to cry.
Ma switched the light on in her room.
“Do you want something Ma?” I went to her.
“Yes, I saw Prabha again. Looking for her birds. They ought to be fetched back.”
Jeeji had been gung ho about her birds. She had come into them through father. She was nine years older than me and had therefore spent more time with him. I was only ten when Father died.
“Does she appear to you, Ma?’ I sat down on her bed.
“Yes, she does, many-a-time,” Ma started crying, “All the more now. Always looking for her birds…”
“She appeared to me too,” I cried along with Ma,” just a while ago. I will certainly go to Satish’s place as soon as day breaks and bring her birds here…”
I raised Ma’s hands to my lips and kissed it.
“Will you?” She was aflame with excitement.
“Yes,” I said.
(iv)

I did not go back to my room.
From Ma’s room I came to the drawing room and stayed there till the livid September night departed.
I knew Satish left his house every morning at seven sharp. For his golf.
I wanted to catch him before seven o’clock…

(v)

“Saahib is at home, isn’t he?” I reached Satish’s house at ten to seven.
“Yes, Saahib is in,” said the servant, who had come to answer the front door.
“Who is it?” Satish called out from his verandah.
“It is me,” I strode up to him.
His hands froze at the laces of the sports shoes that he was putting on.
A widower twice over in two years, he yet had the swagger of a dandy in his manner and attire.
“Cheese it,” all at once a cat came from inside and leapt at me with a little girl following it into the verandah.
She was Satish’s youngest daughter, between five and six.
“Please take her away,” I said.
I had a limited acquaintance with Satish’s daughters. They were three of them; the eldest, a young woman of sixteen. I had always managed to stay away from home during their occasional visits.
“Come Mausi, come,” the girl took the cat away from me.
“You call it ‘Mausi’?” I was aghast. The word ‘Mausi’ had discomfited me. 
“Yes”, the girl giggled.
It was a long-haired cat, its head larger than the girl’s. It was shaded silver, with its shades running gradually down its sides, face and tail. From dark on the edge to white on chin, chest and belly. Its eyes were green, whose rims were out-lined with black. The centre of its nose was brick-red.
“Has it kittened?” I had heard cat reproduce anytime between seven and twelve months.
“No way,” the girl almost screamed, “she is not a day older than five months. We got her the day your sister came to live with us…”
“Go inside, Chulbul,” Satish did not let the girl stick around.
“Say Cheerio to Pa, Mausi,” the girl tossed another cheerio in the air and disappeared with her cat.
“What brings you here?” Satish turned to me.
“Ma has sent me,” I seated myself opposite him.
“For?” Satish asked brusquely. 
“For the birds,” I said.
“Which birds?” he looked askance at me.
“Jeeji’s birds,” I said.
“Those teensy-weensy tweety-birds?” The servant burst out laughing.
“Yes. Those birds,” I stiffened.
“They died within a month or two of their stay here,” said the servant.
“How ?” I bounced off the walls.
“Some poisonous seed-corn got mixed in their pickings,” Satish returned to his shoe laces.
“By mistake” added the servant.
“Whose mistake?” I brushed aside the tears, welling up in my eyes.
“Nobody’s mistake,” Satish shook his head, “Just one of those things. I wonder why Prabha never mentioned this to you…”
“She had never mentioned the cat either,” I said-“May I see the place where they lived? Their dovecot?”
I wanted a pretext to have a look at the interior of the place where Jeeji had spent her last days.
“That dovecot?” laughed the servant again, “How long could that structure last? It got dismantled soon enough…”
“And that corner?” I persisted.
“That corner is now Mausi’s domain, the cat’s territory,” said the servant.
“Anything else?” Satish stood up from his chair, “I have to leave now. For my golf…”
“No, nothing,” I, too, rose.
Satish offered his right hand to me by way of a farewell.
I did not accept it.
Instead I raised both my hands up in a Namaskaar. I preferred that to a handshake with that bum. 
(vi)

I could not, in all conscience, go home-empty handed.
It was impossible to bounce the disappearance of the birds around with Ma.
I advanced my scooter in the direction of the Bird-Bazaar.
I bought three pairs each of Jeeji’s favourite humming-birds and waxbills. I also bought a box for them and loaded them all into a rickshaw and started for home.
“Terrific!” exploded Wifey the moment she saw me, “Splendid! Here comes the  Mama’s Boy! Doughty and obedient! Never questioning the whys and wherefores of her decrees! She says the maika has to arrange the kaath-kafan of the wayward daughter of the house and he does it. She says he has to dole out more money at her Rasam Kiriya. He does that too and now after a fortnight she tells him to fetch these damned birds and he goes ahead with that too and fetches them… That’s all I needed now!”
“What do you know?” I blew off steam, “when Father died Jeeji was only nineteen! Studying for her post-graduation. But she discarded her studies and took up that job in Father’s office. To gut it out for whom?”
“Fancy that!” Wifey hit the roof again “What the heck! Now you talk your head off about Jeeji this and Jeeji that! In high stepper!! Forgetting you held no brief for her when she hitched that high-stepper, that boss of hers…”
“Go and chase yourself,” I was caught short.
“And how! With these birds jerking me around? Expecting me to feed and nurse them?” 
“Cut out your jibber-jabber now,” I shouted, “let me go to Ma…”

(vii)

“These are not Prabha’s birds,” Ma raised herself with my help and inspected them, “Are these waxbills? And these their red munia? No chance. These are lapwings who have been painted red. And look at these! These are not Prabha’s humming-birds. And no mistake. Look at those bills! Their wings! Prabha’s birds had long bills. Almost like swords. Occupying half the length of the birds themselves. And their wings were long and blade-like. In their flight they moved upward, downward, side ways and even backward, whereas these birds stay put when I put them down and ask them to fly…”
“Surely you can take them back to that high-stepper,” Wifey was tickled pink, “After all he must know we won’t buy his jiggery-pokery…”
“What do you say, Ma?” I looked at Ma.
“Surely they should be deposited back at Satish’s place,” Ma’s was an instant reply, “And he must explain what happened to Prabha’s birds…” 
“Yes Ma,” on the instant I left the house with the birds.
To hit out for the Bird-Bazaar a second time.
***

BIO:
Deepak Sharma: born 1946, published 21 collections of short stories in Hindi including Hinsabhas (1993) Ghoda ek Pair (2009) and Tal-ghar (2011) and Pichali Ghaas (2021). She retired as Reader and Head of the Post-graduate Department of English from Lucknow Christian P.G. College, Lucknow. She lives in Lucknow. Awarded Sahitya Bhushan by Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sansthaan for contribution to Hindi literature. Stories have been broadcast by AIR, Lucknow & Delhi.

Dr. Vinita Prakash: Former Associate Professor and Head of the Post-Graduate Department of English in Lucknow Christian College, Lucknow and presently, the Principal of Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Lucknow. She has presented several research papers and delivered many guest lectures at various national and international seminars and conferences. She lives in Lucknow.


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