|The Lost One|
|Friday, 25 July 2008|
By: Nirmali Hettiarachchi
I had seen him often, standing or sitting .on his side of the gate. handsome and majestic, proud and aware of himself. Sometimes, if he were sitting when I passed him, he would stand up and look at me inquiringly. There would be no suspicion in his look - he knew I was one of his neighbors - only curiosity at what I might be doing. Sometimes I would walk past in the heat of the noon, laden with groceries in each hand, and he would keep looking. I wondered what he thought of me.
I certainly envied him his easy fife. I envied the care lavished on him, his beauty and his sense of total security. He did not sow, neither did he reap and yet his master provided him with all his worldly needs. In return all he had to do was be himself. He walked round his master's garden. Sometimes he barked to announce his presence. Mr Doreswamy's children played with him and petted him and cared for him. I had often heard him being called for a bath or for brushing.
His house was by far the best down the lane. It stood up tall, dwarfing its neighbors. Its walls were never allowed to discolour. Mr Doreswamy had them painted once a year. The high wall concealed a beautifully laid out garden. I had seen the gardener go in twice a week. They said Mr Doreswamy cultivated exotic orchids, begonias and palms. The rest of us down the lane would often exchange cuttings when pruning our gardens but Mr Doreswamy had never offered any to anyone and certainly no one would ask him. He kept a security guard at his gate both day and night. We knew his times of arrival and departure because his huge gate would slide noisily on its hinges each time it was opened or closed. And always his arrival was greeted with loud barks of welcome.
Although the big German Shepherd had never been known to bite anybody, he was seen to growl and bark threateningly at strangers who came to the house and everybody who lived down the lane believed him to be very fierce. As soon as he had grown to his full size, Mr Doreswamy had put up a board saying ‘Beware of the dog’. Most of my neighbors hated him. I could never bring myself to hate a dog but I would certainly think twice before encroaching on his territory. I would have loved to have had him for my own, to have had him on my side.
Loyalty prevented me from comparing my own little pie with him. We had woken up one morning to the sound of Sandy whimpering on our doorstep. She had only been a few weeks old then and, moved by pity, I had taken her in. Her temperament was as varied as her ancestors. Sometimes she would romp and play, then, suddenly, she would display a savage suspicion evolved from generations of misuse. Sandy considered protecting us her vocation in life but, unlike her neighbor, she had to make a great performance before anyone took her seriously. Her looks did not inspire awe and fear. She had to growl from the depths of her little being and charge madly, her body tense and her hair on end, before an intruder realized that she meant business. Sandy had nipped the ankles of many an unsuspecting visitor, and yet had been unsuccessful in earning for herself a reputation for ferocity. She was not discriminating. To her everyone other than the members of the household was an enemy and she kept constant vigil at our gate. People passing could hardly fail to contrast the majestic stance of the princely dog behind the tall Gothic wrought-iron gate and the squat mongrel behind the rickety gate with the rusty chain.
In fact it was Sandy's shrill insistent barking that woke us up that night. We awoke to an untimely sunrise at the dead of night. The sky was painted in rosy hues muted by clouds of smoke. We could not fathom this sudden, unnatural beauty.
Then the telephone began to ring. ‘They're burning shops in Borella.’ ‘I say, did you hear? Siva's house has been burnt down. I don't know what has happened to them.’ ‘The roads are impassable. They are setting fire to all the passing cars.’‘They're stoning cars near Kanatte.’
‘They've organized themselves into gangs and are attacking different parts of the city. Everything is out of control. We cannot reach anyone. Violence has broken out everywhere at once.’
‘They’ve robbed the gold shops down Sea Street and then set fire to them.’‘They have noted down certain houses and are coming to destroy them.’
Everyone had expected something to happen soon. It was the suddenness and intensity of this violence that shocked us. We could not go back to sleep. Tissa phoned some of his friends. One or two were angry at being woken up and called him a rumour-monger.
‘This is going to be worse than 58 or 71 chum,’ Rohan the pundit predicted.
The children did not go to school the next morning, but I had to go to market. Whether underestimating the situation or out of sheer laziness, Tissa let me go out alone. I was horrified at the sight that met my eyes. Many shops had been burnt and were still smoking. The glass windows of a large radio shop had been smashed and people were walking off with the radios, TV sets and video recorders inside it. A nearby gold shop had been broken into. I saw a man collect a handful of gold chains and stuff them into the pouch of his sarong. A woman was admiring a pair of earrings she was walking away with. There was a huge pile of burning cloth in the middle of the road. Those who were bold enough to walk on the road seemed to be in a festive mood. There was nobody to stop the arson and looting.
The next day they started entering the houses. They took what they could and set fire to the rest. Rohan phoned to say his neighbor’s house had been razed to the ground. ‘I'm hiding the family in my house. Hell of a thing - five extra people to feed and it's impossible to get anything.’
My own marketing expedition of the previous day had boon unsuccessful. Nothing had been available at the supermarket. I thought this was a temporary lapse and that new stocks would arrive the following day. I was mistaken.
When I reached the junction a strange sight met my eyes. There were long queues of housewives outside the stores. I was amused to see Mrs Ellawala carrying a basket, her liveried chauffeur missing. It took me a second to realize he was a Tamil. I stood behind her.
‘There seems to be an awful mess. Why all these queues?’
‘Nothing is available. I tried everywhere. I heard there are some tins of fish and some rice here. I've been standing here for some time now.’
My heart sank. There was hardly anything to eat at home. What would I give my ever-hungry brood? We moved inside the shop. I saw it was depleted. I heard Mrs Ellawala ask for ten kilos of rice and six tins of fish.
‘Last six, madam,’ the boy said.
‘Please let me have two of them,’ I asked in desperation. She grabbed the tins and scowled at me and, saying nothing, paid for her purchases and stalked away. I couldn't believe it. Mrs Ellawala was always so generous. She always sent us a tray of food after one of her grand parties. In fact, I could not imagine canned sardines at her table.
I was forced to stand in three queues before I could get anything to eat. One little shop had a large stock of canned food - probably looted from other shops which had been burnt. They were selling at almost double the normal price but I was forced to buy from them. Still we would have to go easy on our consumption. I felt panic rising within me.
‘Tissa, for God's sake go and fill up the car.’ I shouted, as I entered the house. His face was grey. I sat down beside him, quiet with fear.
‘Thiru is dead,’ he said quietly. ‘They stopped his car on the road and set fire to it while he was in it.’ Tissa and Thiru had been to university together. Our children played together. This was a hard blow. I pictured myself in Mahal’s place - a young widow, burning with a hatred as intense as the fire which consumed her husband. Up to now the destruction had not touched us personally. Now we had lost a friend.
We were sitting down to a frugal dinner when we heard the fierce shouts. ‘That's the one.’ ‘Burn it down.’ ‘Don't let the dog escape.’
They came, about a hundred thugs with their sarongs tucked up and clubs and stones in their hands. We watched them coming, terrified. Tissa bolted the doors and switched off the lights. I drew the curtains and peeped through a chink.
They stopped at Mr Doreswamy's gate. I heard the dog barking ferociously at them. They were shouting orders to each other now. ‘Kill the bastards!’ ‘Break open the gate!’ One of them lit a torch. I saw that they had petrol cans with them. They broke open Mr Doreswamy's gate and entered. The dog charged at them but one of them threw a lighted torch at him. I saw him stop, affronted, puzzled. He had always been able to chase away intruders before. Their numbers and their brutality intimidated him. He leapt at them again. And then I heard a howl of pain. Someone must have burnt him. I saw him dash out, his tail between his legs. He ran he knew not where, away from the sudden horror of his home.
Then we heard the children screaming. ‘Appa!’ ‘Amma!’ ‘Appa, Appa, no, no!’ The mob emitted angry howls. There were sounds of crockery and furniture being dashed on the floor.
First the curtains were ablaze and the furniture. Then the house was one red glow. Thick black smoke mounted from it.
We felt trapped in our own home. We were forced to witness this horrible drama; unable to do anything about it, hypnotised by the horror. Yet there was a tiny spot inside me that was not sorry. Mr Doreswamy had once boasted that he paid Rs 60,000/ for an ornate antique couch. The couch and its companions were now paying dearly for their ostentation.
The hysteria of the mob increased. They lost interest in the house once it was completely ablaze and marched further down the lane. I heard cries of ‘Find the other devils, burn them down!’ and again and again variations of ‘Filthy bastards!’
We crouched behind our curtain wondering if by some aberration of fate they would burn us too. Anything seemed possible. Then, like a storm governed by unknown forces, they turned round. We saw them pile into trucks and lorries which were parked at the top of the lane. The womenfolk encouraged them, handing them stout sticks and black rockstones. Their heroes were going to conquer and plunder.
The next morning the view from my bedroom window was unusual. Instead of the magnificent house there was a charred ruin. I went out in my dressing-gown. There was no lock now at the gate. I was greeted by a low growl. The dog was seated among the remains of his home. I froze as I saw him but he put his ears back and turned away from my gaze. He could look no one in the eye. The guilt of St Peter had descended on him. He had run away from his master in his hour of need. Who was I to condemn him? However I was not going to risk an encounter. I turned slowly and walked back home.
‘My child! Did you see what happened? It was so terrible. I nearly fainted with fright. I'm still shivering with the thought of it. They say all the rich people's houses have been burnt this time.’
‘I know, Mrs Perera. The awful thing is that we were so helpless. Tissa and I were too scared to move.’
‘What could you do, child? Don't worry, I heard they escaped to a refugee camp. They have set up refugee camps in some of the big schools.’
I signed inwardly with relief. I wished I could tell the dog that his family was safe.
‘I'm going to market,’ Mrs Perera shouted to me from half way down her gateway. ‘Have to go early to get a good place in the queue. Do you have food in the house?’ I shook my head. ‘Then you better come early too. This is not going to end soon, and unless we stock some food we'll have to starve.’
She walked back purposefully up to me. ‘You know that man?’ she said, pointing to Doreswamy’s ruin. ‘He treated us like dirt; he was so purse-proud. This is God's doing. You mark my words.’
She was basically a kind-hearted woman. Trying to hide the expression on my face, I waved, indicating I had to rush, and ran indoors.
When I got out again and parked my car, I had to resign myself to a place far back in a queue. Mrs Perera had walked and she arrived a little after me, panting.
‘I hear terrible things are happening. Can't talk here child, we must be very careful.’
I was reassured by her profound wisdom and nodded.
Our little store-keeper had had a field night. The store next to his had been set fire to, and he had spent the night shifting all those goods over to his own store. He now beamed at us, his face still sooty. Suddenly the queue broke. We were all grabbing as much as we could. I saw some tins on a shelf and reached out for them. ‘Aney. two for me also,’ Mrs Perera behind me shouted. I found myself elbowing away from her as fast as I could, ignoring her pleas. At last I had got something to feed my brood. l did not turn round to see the shock and hurt in her eyes.
I drained the oil off the tinned fish and mixed it with Sandy's rice. Thank heaven she was not a fussy dog. I placed her bowl in its usual place under the mango tree and, as l looked up, I started. At first I thought the sun had affected me. But no, he was there, standing in front of my gate. I walked up to him and he looked at me in dumb appeal. His fur was matted. His parched tongue moved about in his mouth as he swallowed slowly. My face must have registered pity for his expression changed. He still believed he could trust humans for his needs. He wagged his tail and started panting rhythmically - the pant of a thirsty dog. I realized he had not had even a drop of water for hours. My hand was on the gate.
‘What the devil do you think you are doing?’ ‘Tissa, he’s starving! I can’t bear to look at him.’ ‘Woman, are you mad? He's a man-eater.’ Tissa came up to me. The dog stood still, watching us.
‘Tissa, he won't bite anyone now. All he wants is something to eat.’
‘Yes, and after he's had it? You give him to eat once, and he'll be behind you morning, noon and night. Very soon he'll be in the house. Look at his size! Do you think Sandy will stand a chance against him? What about Vimal and Shamara? They'll want to pet him, and then? He doesn't know them. I'm not risking a full grown dog attacking them. Do not start something jf you don't know where it is going to end.’
I sighed and took my hand away from the gate. He saw the gesture.‘Shoo! Out! Get out dog! Get …….!’
Something of his old majesty returned. He jerked his head and stalked away.
I saw him foraging in the garbage bins down the lane. But here he had to contend with the regular customers - the stray dogs who regarded these bins as their territory. I heard a huge rumpus. Indignant, high-pitched shrieks and deep, savage growls. They were no match for him. He collected his food and took it to the privacy of his ruined home; his pride hurt that he had to mess with such riff raff. But he had survived according to the rules of the jungle. The dogs watched him from outside. Not one dared to enter his territory. But my heart bled as he wolfed down the pieces of stale bread. He even ate a plantain skin.
It rained in the evening and I saw him lapping up water from the puddles. He drank fast, baring his teeth and spitting out the mud and dirt in the water.
The uneasy stillness of the night was worse than the pandemonium of the night before. I could not sleep. I found no warmth in human contact. The night was full of darkness. My little house, no longer a place of security, was stifling. I walked out into the moonlight.
This time he let me walk in. His spirit was broken. What was there for him to guard? Whom could he trust? I could not meet his eyes. He had no use for my unproductive pity. We stood there silently, in the moonlight, creatures of two different kinds who had watched the destruction of a third. Part of each of us too had been destroyed but, each in our own way, we refused to admit it. He fought to survive with his instincts but his faith was gone. My soul fought to reject the incomprehensible reality. His passive dignity was embarrassing. I went home.
We were getting used to a new kind of life - curfews, food shortages, distant gunshots, ominous silences, rumours, rumours and more rumours. We chose our friends carefully, confiding cautiously.
That noon the pack of strays was ready for him as he walked unsteadily out of his gate. They were on him before he could reach the first bin. Their shrieks grew louder and more triumphant. After a few seconds I could not hear his growls. Then he was running, his tail between his legs, emitting short whining noises. I could not watch him. His shame was my shame. His degradation mine. My inactivity added a new dimension to the concept of helplessness.
He was too weak to run fast for long and they caught up with him at the top of the lane. Now he was fighting for his life. They tore him, their gloating hysteria mounting. I did not realize I was screaming till I felt Tissa's gentle hand over my mouth. I would have run out if he had not held me.
I saw him break away and run, dragging one of his hind paws. And still they chased him. Pariahs, scavengers, hounding a product of centuries of careful cultivation.
I do not know why he decided to take his last stand in the ruins of his old home. Was it to make amends for running away the first time? Was it the last vestige of his sense of security? Some vain hope that they would be intimidated? Was it merely his territorial instinct? Or did he just give up?
(Courtesy : SCOPP )
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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