I am carrying a precious cargo. Ben and Elizabeth came to see me off, and handed it over to me in a small packet. I have to deliver it to Sandhya for a sacred assignment. I am glad it has been entrusted to me. During my short stay in USA, I had come to like this wonderful couple who are in love with my country, with her ordinary people, her dogs and even her motor bicycles.
I met Ben first time on the flat top of the hill where I was performing stretching exercises at the end of my climb. I would climb there almost every morning and evening. From my daughter’s home in Saratoga, California where I was staying, it is barely a half mile up the circuitous Old Oakway Drive that cuts through the mountain.
Suddenly, I heard the roar of a motorcycle arising from the very depths of the mountain, crashing the silence of the woods. And, soon after, he came riding a black Royal Enfield, almost taking a giant leap from the last bend in the road a hundred meter down from where I stood.
He slowed down, sputtered at the landing for a while, steered gently around to face east, turned off the engine and parked the motorcycle on its stand. The sun was rising just then from behind the oak forest, the first iridescence lighting up the vehicle in sudden brilliance. From his pocket he fished out his cell phone, focused its camera on the motorcycle and started taking pictures from different angles.
I stopped my exercise and turned to face him.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi,” he responded without looking up from the camera, taking more shots.
He was a young man, fair, tall and handsome, with a thick crop of golden hair and sharp blue eyes. He wore a fleecy jacket over a shirt and cinch jeans.
“Taking pictures,” I said, more as an affirmation of what he was doing than a question.
“Isn't she a beauty,” he remarked animatedly, now looking directly at me, the sun behind his back and directly on my face. I shielded my eyes with my right hand held in front of the sun.
“Yes, like a new bride,” I remarked. The motorbike was spotless and shining, as if fresh from the factory.
“Well, yes, she is a bride; not so new, though.”
“An Indian bride?” I asked with a chuckle.
“Oh, yes. Of course, you would make out. And what a lot I had to go through to get her here.”
“I had to dismantle her and ship her from Delhi.”
“I am sure Royal Enfields are available here too,” I said, more as a question than an affirmation.
“Yes, they are. But I fell for this one at Delhi. I could not have abandoned her after she served me faithfully for three years. And the engine is special, slick and soundless. You don't find that in the new versions.”
“And the pictures?”
“Well, it has been a job to reassemble her here. I had to learn to do it myself. My friends and relatives would love to look at her—her new look after she moved here. I will put the pictures up on the Face book for all to see.”
“Why didn’t you bring her as accompanying baggage when you traveled back?”
“They would not let me. There are restrictions, you know. Homeland security is a major concern after 9/11.”
“I know,” I replied.
“It had to undertake a long voyage from Delhi,” he said, looking appreciatively, fondly at his bike. “I am glad it is finally here. Reminds me of my stay in India.”
“It seems you had a happy time. Did you like Delhi?” I asked.
“Yes, quite a lot, in spite of the extreme summer. Good people; friendly, obliging. And good schools for kids. My children loved it. You are a pleasant people.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I extended my hand. “Kundan”
“Benjamin.” He shook my hand warmly. “Ben for short.”
“Glad to know you, Ben.”
“I live just a few turns down the road. On the right side as you go back, the house where you see work going on.”
“Yes, I have been seeing the workmen for the last few days.”
“Where do you live?”
“Jammu. I wonder if you have heard of the city. I am on a holiday. My daughter lives in the last house on the right as you go down the drive.”
He smiled. “We are neighbors, then. I know about Jammu and Kashmir and wanted to visit the valley while I was in India. Heard so much about its natural beauty, but did not venture to visit because of the militancy going on there. Besides, from time to time, our government has been issuing advisories to her citizens to avoid visiting the place.”
“You lived in India for quite some time?” I asked.
“I was the legal advisor to Nokia at Delhi for nearly four years. Now I have been transferred back to USA. We moved here last week.”
“I see you own a Nokia cell phone.”
“Yes, it is a gift from the company. It has a high resolution camera.”
“Well, happy riding, Ben.”
“Happy holidays, Kundan.”
A few mornings later, just when I was turning back after my daily workout on the small plateau, I saw a woman with her dog coming up the road. This was a new face, and a dog of a different pedigree than the ones I had witnessed during my four-week stay. I had grown quite familiar with the neighborhood, and knew on my finger tips almost all the home numbers on this short stretch up the hill of pines, cedars, redwoods, and oaks.—just about two dozen high-end homes with huge outlooks, coffee brown or buff, with sloping driveways, fenced by oleanders, some with sloping vineyards and others with swimming pools. It was a spiritual experience to have deer cross your walk, rabbits hop into the bushes, crows from treetops caw at your arrival, blue jays raise a ruckus, and the mists appear as mysteriously as they dissolved. Lilting music floated from a huge vineyard up the hill from across the deep gorge on weekend evenings.
When I reached near her, she smiled widely, as if she knew me, and said hello in a musical voice, while her dog looked at me as if in recognition and started wagging its tail and tugging at the leash towards me.
She was a lean, pretty woman, blond, small green eyes, short wavy hair arranged like a halo around her small round face. She wore a short white blouse and a purple skirt.
“Hello,” I responded. “Your dog wants to be friends with me.”
“Yes, he can recognize an Indian from far,” she replied.
Suddenly the dog breathed India to me. I realized that he looked a typical Indian dog with gentle—almost pathetic—eyes, and hungry looks. He looked at me and I felt a sudden, inexplicable surge of affection.
“He must be quite intelligent,” I remarked.
“In fact, he is.”
“What is the Indian connection?”
“He's an Indian dog.”
“I see he is,” I replied.
“We got him from Delhi.”
“I already feel close to him.”
Both of us laughed aloud. The dog looked on curiously.
“There's something you might call Indian-ness in everything that is Indian, something that tells you. I could tell when I saw you from far as you stood there on the plateau. Ben had mentioned about meeting you.” She spoke slowly, clearly.
“Yes, I met him with his bride,” I chuckled.
“Bride?” she looked surprised.
“The Indian bride,” I said with a wink. “The one he had to get shipped here.”
She burst into laughter. The dog wagged his tail and seemed to laugh with her, all the time focused on me.
“Of course, you must be his real bride,” I surmised.
“I am Elizabeth. And you’re Kunddan?”
“Kundan,” I corrected her.
“Kunddan,” she said again, trying to pronounce it correctly, but doing it worse than before.
We both laughed.
“What is his name,” I asked pointing towards the dog.
“Sandhya suggested we call him Ashok. But the kids found it difficult to pronounce. We decided on Dash.”
Dash was a brown dog with a white underbelly, brown legs with white stripes and pale-black streaks as if a painter had cleaned his black brush on them in haste.
“Who is Sandhya?”
“Our domestic help while we were in Delhi. She loved him, took great care of him. I miss her.”
I could imagine Sandhya— young, lean, affectionate, in a colorful cheap sari— cleaning, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, ungrudgingly, joyfully.
“You got Dash with you?” I asked.
“What about Sandhya?”
“We would have loved to bring her along. But it is easier to get a dog than a girl. Our kids had grown fond of her and she was eager to come. Her parents wanted it too. They are poor. Sandhya is the sharpest among their five children. She would accomplish every task with ease and finesse.”
“She must be out of job after you left.”
“She is quite efficient; she should have no problem getting another job. Ben has put in a word at the Nokia office for her.”
“Where did you get Dash from?”
“He is a street dog. We knew his parents. They gave birth to four pups. We liked Dash for his color. He was affectionate from the beginning. Sandhya threw him crumbs and leftovers. My kids took a fancy for him. They wanted a dog. Ben said he would buy a pedigree. The kids wanted Dash. He was two months old when we took him in. Sandhya helped us tame him till he got used to us.”
“It must have been quite a job.”
“Oh, he was so dirty, smelly, and sulked a lot inside. It was not easy. He yelped, wanted to stay dirty, wanted to go back to his ways. His siblings and parents came for him. We let them hang around with him for a bellyful of playtime in our yard. The kids loved to play with him, scrub him and brush him. Training Dash has not been easy. He would love to forage for food on the street even when we offered the best dog food. But potty training was the most difficult. He still can't get over the Indian habit completely. I walked him everyday, waited for him, ready with a poop bag to pick after him, but he would return home and ease himself in a corner of the lobby.”
I blushed at what she called the Indian habit.
“What about his travel to this place? Did you have to go through a lot of formalities like you had to for the Royal Enfield?”
“Of course, we had to complete many formalities for his immigration, take him to the vet, get him vaccinated against rabies, de-worm and disinfect him, get a certificate from Dr. Mohan. He is a fine person; sends street dogs to Canada. There is a big demand from that country.”
“Did you bring Dash along with you?”
“We came together; he was put in the cargo. We had to order a special crib for him for transportation. When we landed and collected him, it was a heart-trending sight. He was confused and sad, did not even bark once; just clung close to my kids.”
“Has he adjusted here?”
“To a large extent. He was quite morose in the beginning. But he is gradually adjusting. He is happy with people, not so with the dogs here. When he sees one he becomes fretful and nervous. He is afraid, timid. He still like crumbs thrown at him rather than eat off a plate. We feel it will take him long to get over his thousand-year street-dog mentality.”
“Given time and the right conditions, he might turn out to be as good as any pedigree. He must be homesick. I am sure he misses his siblings, and the street where he was born. Place attachment, you know.”
“Yes, he does miss it all. And he misses Sandhya most. She had spoiled him. I hope he settles down soon.”
Just then a hawk sailed across the sky, the crest of a blue jay rose in alarm like a serrated knife, and he uttered a shrill call and darted across into a dense grove of oaks. Dash gave a yelp. Elizabeth patted him.
I took leave of them.
A few days later, I saw them again. Elizabeth stopped to speak with me. Dash started wagging his tail at me. I went near and he started licking my leg. I patted him on the back.
“He loves to be touched under the snout,” she said.
I gently rubbed his snout. He curled around me in great affection.
She was glad. “He seems so happy with you. He prances with joy when he sees anyone in a sari. I feel he would love to be back in India, amongst Indians.”
“Now that you have two Indians in your home, they have company,” I said with a smile.
“The bride and Dash.”
She laughed. “You are right. Dash loves a ride on the motorcycle.”
“Does he? I hope Ben is careful.”
“He has not yet driven in the city. But he was suggesting the other day that he would ride it to his office. He just loves the bike, and we all love Dash.”
“Well, enjoy the Indian company.”
Over the next three weeks, on my morning walks – I was almost a solitary morning walker on that mountain path – I would often hear the roar of an engine followed by the familiar figure of Ben driving the Royal Enfield, his kids taking turns pillion riding behind him and, sometimes, Dash. For the dog, Ben had arranged a large basket which he fastened with a belt on the pillion seat. On other days, I would find Elizabeth on her morning walks, with Dash on a leash. She would invariably stop on seeing me, and exchange pleasantries, possibly also to please her dog, which wagged its tail vigorously on meeting a fellow Indian. She said Dash was gradually adjusting to the new milieu; that her younger son, John, was in love with the pet. The two had become inseparables. Besides, Dash loved the pillion rides.
Then, the roar of the engine stopped for no reason. For a whole week, I did not see Ben, or Elizabeth, or Dash on my morning trail. Passing by their house, I did not even hear the familiar screaming of the kids or the barking of Dash.
Was it possible the family had gone for a holiday? I had not been to their place, never even stepped inside their front yard, nor ever paused near the gate while on my walks. The incremental familiarity with them, as we passed each other on the road or stopped to exchange pleasantries, seemed good enough. But my stay at Saratoga was drawing to a close and I did no feel happy to leave without meeting them just once.
It was Thursday – I would be flying back on Saturday – when my curiosity got the better of me, and I paused near their house, wondering if I should step in, ring the door bell and find out how they were faring. Just then, Elizabeth opened the front door of her house. I felt embarrassed, as if caught prying, and was about to walk away when she called out affably, “Come in, Kunddan; I saw you from my window.”
She looked pale. The familiar smile was missing. Her small face looked smaller, like that of a baby girl.
“I am sorry. I wanted to say bye before I return to India. I have not seen any of you for a week,” I said.
“I knew you would be missing us during your walks. In fact, I wanted to let you know.”
Know what? My heart missed a beat. I prayed inwardly that her kids and husband were safe.
“Dash is gone,” she said in a sad voice, and broke down, her face contorted with pain.
I did not understand. Where could Dash go? He could not have just disappeared? Had he been given into adoption to someone?
“Last week, Ben wanted to buy some dog food for Dash. He took him along on the pillion seat of his motorbike. This was the first time he was riding with Dash on the main street. It seems Dash got frightened of the traffic. Somehow, the basket became unfastened, Dash fell down, a car moving behind ran him over, and he was crushed.”
A current passed through my body.
“That sounds appalling,” I exclaimed.
“Ben took him to the hospital,” she continued. “The vets tried everything to save his life, but he had his skull broken, and had bled profusely from ruptured liver and intestines.”
“What a terrible death! I can’t believe it.”
“We can’t, either. We are still in shock. Ben feels terribly guilty. He has not been to his office since. Just sits brooding in the corner. He is cursing the day he got the motorcycle from India. Even rues his decision to bring Dash here. The kids are inconsolable.”
“I feel so terribly sorry, Elizabeth. Sorry for Dash whom I had come to like, sorry for you to lose a family member.”
“You are right; he had fully integrated with our family.”
“Hope you get over this tragedy soon and resume your lives.”
She pushed back her hair, took a deep breath and said, “Can you please do us a favor, Kunddan? We would like you to carry the ashes to India when you go back.”
“Ashes?” I asked, surprised.
“We would like you to deliver them to Sandhya. We have phoned her. I will give you her address, but if you can’t spare the time, she will pick the ashes from you at the airport. I will let her know your flight and arrival time.
“What do you want to send the ashes for, all the way to India?”
“We want Dash to have Hindu rites. We arranged for his cremation the same day he was crushed to death. It was such a sad spectacle. We did not let our children see his dead body. But we wrapped him in a saffron cloth and placed him in a tray for the cremation and asked the kids to lay floral wreaths on him. We also invited a Hindu priest to say a few mantras before the body was consigned to the flames. We feel responsible for his tragic end. We loved him; he was like another child and had become a part of the family. But his soul was still in India. We could sense it. We want his soul to rest in peace where it belongs. Sandhya will perform the rites. She said she will immerse his ashes in the Ganges at Haridwar.”
I was moved to tears.
“I will be glad to carry the ashes with me, Elizabeth,” I said with great emotion. “I am flying this Saturday.”
“That is so kind of you,” she said, shaking my hands warmly.
With mixed emotions, I took her leave and walked down the path back to my daughter’s house.
|*Dr. K L Chowdhury retired as a Professor of Medicine, Medical College, Srinagar. Presently he is the Director of a charitable institution, Shriya Bhatt Mission Hospital and Research Center, Durga Nagar, Jammu.
He is a physician and neurologist, a medical researcher, poet, social activist. He writes on diverse subjects – medical, literary, social and political and has numerous research papers to his credit, his pioneering work being “The Health Trauma in a Displaced Population” which was presented at national and international conferences.
He has published three anthologies namely:
1- “Of Gods, Men and Militants”. Minerva Press (Pvt.) India -2000
2- “A Thousand-Petalled Garland and other Poems”. Writers Workshop Kolkata – 2003
3- “Enchanting world of Infants” Peacock Books, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors-2007
He was declared Shehjar's 'Kashmiri Person of the year' for 2007.
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I like this. The way it has been narrated and the manner of its presentation has set me thinking if I could emulate such kind of writing. May be I will one day and the credit will go to you Doctor Chowdhury. Thanks for a refreshing tale.
Added By BL Dhar
This is one of the best, I have read from Dr. Sahab. I think message goes beyond. This is self introspection for Kashmiri brothers and sisters living abroad. I believe, we may exceed in our individual careers but history will question if were happy and what support did we provided to our community ?
Added By vinod pandita
Thank you, Dhar Sahib. You overwhelm me. Let me admit, you are a wonderful short story writer in your own right. I have enjoyed each and every story by you in Shehjar. Keep it up, and more power to your pen.
Added By Kundan Chowdhury