By: Khemendra Kamal
Sarwan was cremated three days ago.
Tonight, a well-known singer came to sing kirtans. The makeshift shed was full of people. A group of women encircled Sarwan’s widow, who sat lifelessly. Men formed small circles around yagona basins and made conversations in between the songs. Kava flowed at regular intervals wetting the dry throats of the grog gang.
Sant Kumar, Sarwan’s father, sat leaning on a concrete wall of his house. In deep thought. His only son died. He died before him. He had to torch the pyre where Sarwan lay dead. Sant never blinked once while Sarwan’s body burned to ashes. But he felt his soul burn along with his son. This feeling has come back to him hundreds of times ever since. With this feeling, millions of other thoughts cluttered his mind. Whenever he managed to take control of those troubling thoughts, reality came to the fore. His only son died.
Sant kept staring at all these people. He didn’t recognise most of them. These were unfamiliar faces, no connection to him whatsoever.
“Maybe they knew Sarwan,” Sant reasoned. After all, Sarwan was a taxi driver. He must have known these people. Knowing many people is good for business; how can he forget this? He was also a taxi driver some twenty years ago.
Sant shrugged off those thoughts. Again, he tried hard to recognise some men sitting near him in the crowd. The cataract in his left eye didn’t help much though he could see reasonably well with his right eye. For the past two years, he has been waiting for his eye operation. A sudden fear gripped him, “How will I find my way in the dark? Who will take me to the hospital now? Sarwan is dead?”
With his good eye, he saw Sarwan’s son, Neeraj, walking toward him. “Ajja, come and have your meal. You look exhausted,” Neeraj said aloud, intending to be heard. Sant looked straight at Neeraj. He had the same sharp features as Sarwan. That square chin and the straight nose! Already, he had reached his father’s shoulders. In a few years, Neeraj could have shared his father’s responsibilities. Just like Sarwan … who stood by him when their land lease expired and the family had to relocate from his place of birth.
It was some thirty years ago. That night was long and angry. Rain sprayed like bullets from a machine gun. Having no place to go, Sant erected a hovel in a squatter settlement overnight. In the dim light from a nearby house, they nailed something that became their home. Soaked and shivering, Sarwan stood by Sant while the rain washed his mother’s tears.
That night transformed the village lad into a responsible man. The very next day, Sarwan went out and about seeking work. The idea of school was erased from his mind; school, education, and books meant nothing to him. Putting food on the table was his aim now. But what work would he get? He was only fourteen! A kind man gave him a job at a car wash center. In a week, Sarwan proved his worth. He worked diligently. Coming from a village, he hardly had any opportunity to sit in anyone’s car, but now he got the chance to touch and feel some of the most expensive cars. Soon he learned the names of all the models that came to the center. He went on to learn the specifications and many more details.
When Sarwan was not washing cars, he was helping at a nearby tyre repair center for extra cash. The proprietors were kind enough to let Sarwan shuttle between the two establishments. They were impressed by Sarwan’s sincerity. Little did they know that Sarwan had an insatiable desire; he craved every opportunity to work on cars. He soon developed a passion for cars.
As a stroke of luck, Sant started driving a taxi. Imagine Sarwan’s delight! He washed the taxi until it was spotless. The interior of the car always carried a sweet fragrance. Many customers praised Sant for keeping his taxi spick and span without knowing that it was not Sant but Sarwan’s effort.
Sarwan’s obsession with cars didn’t end with washing, changing tyres, or cleaning them; at night, before sleep, he would bring out his toy car from his jute bag to play with it. At an age when boys were interested in fancy clothes, video games, and so many other things, Sarwan had only one obsession–cars!
While toying around, Sarwan talked to the toy car of his dream. He dreamt of a home, a place which he could say his own. In his dream home, his parents had a bedroom of their own. There was a living room, a kitchen with built-in cabinets, a proper bathroom and toilet, and many more commodities. In his dream, he would see himself adding a kitchen appliance or decorating the living room. He included some fancy stuff from those shops that sold assorted decors … all in his dream. Each day he managed to add something new and remove the old, but his dream never got old. Such was his dream.
At last, Sarwan realised some part of his dream. He saved enough money to buy a taxi. With his taxi, he worked day and night. Bit by bit, he saved enough to buy a small plot of land. Then he built a house on it that eventually became a home for his small family. His home was simple yet warm enough. Whenever Sarwan had a few dollars to spare, he would buy an ornament to decorate his home.
Today in the driveway stood Sarwan’s taxi: lifeless and cold since his death, the same taxi that throve with Sarwan’s heartbeat. The taxi blew life into many of Sarwan’s dreams. Alas, he lost his last breath in it. What destiny!
A hundred thoughts were ruminating in his mind like a whirlwind. He was in his present, his past, and beyond. Suddenly he thought of Sarwan’s mother. She died three years ago. Squatter life didn’t suit her; she missed her home in the village, the trees in the yard, chickens in the pen, goats in the shed, and her Lali–her cow. Selling off Lali broke her heart. During the initial days in the squatter, she used to recall one thing or another. She died of a broken heart, not dengue fever as the doctor claimed.
Now Sarwan was gone. Just when they started to enjoy the rewards of their laborious life, tragedy hit them again. Suddenly Sant realised that he had to look after the family. He felt the weight of the wall pressing on his shoulders. He looked around, bewildered.
Someone put a hand on his shoulders. Turning around, he saw a new face. This person introduced himself as Sanjay. He was a bystander who witnessed the incident. Yes, the accident! Sant held his hand tight and made him sit near him. There was a deafening silence between them though the dholakia drummed the dholak with all his might.
Sanjay was served a bowl of kava. Sant kept looking into his eyes, seeking some answers, while Sanjay tried to evade those questioning eyes. At last, Sant spoke, “you were there, naa.”
The incident was fresh in Sanjay’s mind. He saw it all. For Sanjay, the thought of an innocent person losing his life for someone else’s recklessness was sickening. What bothered Sanjay more was the unpredictability of life. One moment, you are alive and the next, you are gone, just like that! The death of Sarwan evoked existentialist questions in his mind. The duality of dharma and karma, life and death, and the fickleness of life flooded his mind. Was life meant to be lived like Sisyphus?
From the time of the incident, he hardly shared what he witnessed, except with the police officer, for apparent reasons. The gentle drizzle, the screeching of tyres, the fall of the woman, and then … what he couldn’t forget was the pain in Sarwan’s eyes when the stranger suddenly struck him. Like a fish scooped out of the water, Sarwan gulped for his breath, opening and closing his mouth in despair. Sanjay couldn’t erase that moment from his memory; no matter how much he tried to shake off that thought, the memory returned in waves until painful tears escaped his eyes.
At last, Sanjay spoke. He began telling how it happened. It was drizzling, and there was a traffic jam, Sarwan tried to cut the line and enter a lane on the right, and just then, a middle-aged woman crossed the street. The taxi moved, the woman slipped and fell in the middle of the road, people thought Sarwan had bumped her, two youths came from nowhere, one helped the woman stand up, the other punched Sarwan at the back of his right ear. When the commotion subdued, then we realised that Sarwan was unconscious. By the time he was taken to the hospital, he was dead. Police arrested the person who assaulted him, but the post-mortem report indicated death from a heart attack. Case closed!
Sanjay kept his narration brief, yet Sant visualised it all like Dhritarashtra. Although Sarwan’s case was closed, a new leaf was turning in Sant’s life.
Sant didn’t realise when Sanjay left. He was whirling in his own world. Occasionally he drank a bowl of kava. His shaven head started to itch; he scratched hard, cursing the ritual. Someone suggested rubbing some ghee. In the corner of their small veranda, Sarwan’s widow sat limp, eyes dull and dried of tears. He was well aware of her thoughts, “what would happen next? Their house is under the mortgage, the taxi needs repair, Neeraj is in form four, and she knew nothing apart from domestic duties”. Her world was turned upside down just with a blow, a blow from someone unknown. What could Sarwan have done to him? Did he cheat him? Swear at him, what? Sarwan, to whom so ever, was the gentlest soul, ever-smiling, reliable, and punctual. Maybe he was too punctual; he did not make HIM wait.
Again thoughts were running wild in Sant’s mind. From funds to family matters to what he has to act on now. It was drumming in his mind, much louder than the dholak.
What he saw in the shed the following day froze him. Sant saw emptiness, vast emptiness in his small yard. The trodden grass turned yellow and in between two posts stood a ghostly figure in a dull white sari and veil, his daughter-in-law. All barren. They looked at each other bewildered but stood rooted as if tied to a cross. Tears rolled from their eyes; not a single sob was heard. The widow slumped to the ground, but Sant suddenly found new strength in his old limbs. He wiped his tears with the back of his palm and started pulling down the shed.
Neeraj rushed out of the house when he heard the clanging of the roofing irons. “Ajja, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Can’t you see it! I am pulling down the shed,” Sant replied.
“But the ritual isn’t over yet,” Neeraj opposed.
“It’s over! No ritual will bring my son back. It’s all over now. The faster we realise this, the better for us,” Sant replied curtly. “Now, either you help me out or stare with those confused eyes.”
Neeraj had enough drama. He agreed to help without more fuss. First went the roofing iron, then the poles, and finally the posts. Done away with the shed, he said, “Beti, I need a glass of water.”
Then Sant walked inside the house and came out with his driving licence in hand. He called Neeraj and his mother, “we need to talk.” Their talk was punctuated with pauses.
“What are you up to, Daddy?” Neeraj’s mother broke her fast.
“We are going to get an appointment with an eye specialist,” replied Sant calmly. “This cataract gotta go.”
“And then?” Neeraj enquired.
“And then we will realise Sarwan’s dream,” responded Sant.
“But how Ajja,” Neeraj asked.
“Look at that taxi! I will drive it as soon as I can see properly,” replied Sant.
Although the three looked quiet and calm outwardly, a hundred volcanoes were roaring in their minds. It was not a time to mourn but to live.
“Beti, Sarwan is gone, but his dream of a happy home for us remains. Look at these hands, they shivered when I held the matchbox to torch the pyre, but today they were as steady as a rock.”
After another long pause, Sant concluded, “Sarwan died, not his dream.”
Khemendra Kamal Kumar hails from Fiji Islands. He resides in Lautoka and works at the Fiji National University as a lecturer.
Khemendra was born in Bulileka in Labasa, Fiji. Khemendra’s interest lies in literacy, children’s literature, and English literature. He has authored poems, short stories, children’s books, and published academic papers. Currently, he is working on his second collection of poetry and short stories.