A long way home
In this fictional story based on real events, a four-legged creature witnesses the lockdown as a violent and life-changing event for him and his human owner
In the four years that I have lived here, I have never seen them happy. They didn’t seem unhappy either. They were just okay, I guess.
They were the kind of couple that liked routine. Every morning, Raj and Kanika had tea together, perched on metal chairs in the middle of the sprawling lawn, their backs to the line of potted chrysanthemums behind which stood their enormous bungalow. When Raj returned home from work around 8pm, they had a quiet dinner together at the eight-seater teak dining table.
Other than that, I never saw them seek each other out.
After they retired to their bedroom, I don’t know if Raj asked Kanika what she did that day. I don’t know if they spoke about where they might go for their next holiday. I don’t know if they discussed politics. I was never allowed inside their room at night.
I could roam around their room in the day, but at night, I was to be tied to the fancy black railing of the staircase. I didn’t protest. It was a big house, I had done my share of running around, wagging tail and munching goodies, all day.
So, I was happy to be left alone at night.
Kanika had rescued me from a tea stall near St Xavier’s College, where she had graduated from. I had seen Kanika and Subhash drink many a cup of elaichi tea there.
Just after she completed her BA in English and just before she was to be married to Raj, I was cradled in her arms and brought into her parental home. When she married into the Aggarwal family, I was brought into her New Alipore mansion.
I liked Kolkata, muddied in its raw chaos. This bungalow had no Kolkata-specific characteristics, if you know what I mean. It could have stood just as majestically anywhere else.
Incidentally, Kanika felt the same about herself. “I could have just as well been anywhere, Cuddles, and I would just be the same," she used to say to me. Always.
On a rather hot March day, as Raj’s Mercedes was pulling into the garage, everyone else at home sat glued to the television. That impeccably dressed man with a white beard and a pair of spectacles was announcing something important. The last time he did that, there was so much commotion in the house, they forgot to feed me that night! Every large and small wardrobe was flung open, boxes of cash appeared from kitchens, study and guest rooms. Raj had kicked me away, saying he had important calls to make. Even Kanika sat down with a notepad which had two columns. Names of the household help on the left and amounts they were given on the right. All of them were to go to the banks in the following days.
Just when I thought that frenzy had cooled down, why was this man on TV again? I winced and went to look for the tennis ball I like to chew when I am tense.
Within minutes of Raj’s arrival, they told him that the TV man had announced a lockdown. Everyone was to stay indoors. No one was to venture out for anything. There was a scary little virus that was killing people, they said.
I saw the blood from Kanika’s face drain out. I guessed that was because she could not visit her friends or parents any more. She could not go to Kolkata’s famous art galleries any more. She could not go back to the small tea stall in front of St Xavier’s any more. But until when?
Raj looked unhappy too. “I am not sure how supplies from Rajasthan will reach us," I heard him say to his father. By supplies, he meant reams of clothes which they would then stitch into blouses and saris. “Oh, but I am more concerned about the paper and the newsprint," said his father. The family owned a printing press and one day they decided, since they had the press anyway, they would start a newspaper as well. “Always keep the money in the family," Aggarwal senior said.
That night, after everyone went to sleep, I wandered into the kitchen. They had forgotten to tie me up and I didn’t mind a late-night stroll.
Sohini and Shrabonti were prepping for next day’s meals.
“Why was badi malkin so angry yesterday?" asked Sohini.
“Same old," said Shrabonti. “Kanika bibi returned home only at 7.30 in the evening. So, she started her usual rant."
Both laughed and began mocking Raj’s mother together. “In our times, we put a dupatta over our heads. Never once speaking against the men of the house. We only ate after the men had eaten."
They laughed again.
“Did you see that black mark under Kanika bibi’s left eye?" asked Sohini.
“No, what happened?" the other shook her head.
“I know my Shamu would never do that to me," Sohini said. “I would break his arm if he tried!"
“What happened to bibi though?" It was Shrabonti.
“Some argument happened on the day of Janata curfew."
“Baba and bibi," said Sohini. “Uff!! Keep up with the story now!"
I knew that Raj and Kanika fought a lot. They disagreed over almost everything—how much time to spend at her parents’, how much she should invest in her own art gallery, how often she should go to the temple.
When angry, he would clench his teeth and mutter expletives, careful not to alert his parents, whose room was beside theirs. In return, she would stop communicating with him. And sometimes, skip meals in protest.
I didn’t know what argument had ensued a few days ago. But the scar that Sohini was talking about was real. Kanika had tried to hide that with her sunglasses, her scarf and her thick hair.
The women then began talking about a television series they watch. I was bored. My legs felt heavy, I stretched my forelegs and returned to my spot to sleep.
The lockdown routine was different. Raj and Kanika did not drink tea together in the mornings, nor did they have quiet dinners in the evenings. Raj exercised, ate breakfast and went into his study to play video games. His parents spent time performing elaborate rituals before the idols. For the first two days, Kanika never came out of her room.
I sauntered into her room to find out what had happened. I saw her sprawled on the bed, crying. Raj didn’t like it when I climbed on the bed, so I stood on the side waiting to hug her. And reassure her that all will be well.
When she turned to me, I saw two more darkish red marks on her face. “Oh, Cuddles!" she hugged me. Why does Raj hit you Kanika, I wanted to ask. I would never wag my tail at someone who hits me. Why do you go back to live in the same room as Raj, I wanted to ask.
The gardeners did not come to tend to the lawns, drivers were asked to stay at home. Except for Sohini and Shamu, who shared a room, and Shrabonti, who lived in an adjacent one above the garage, there was no staff at home.
On the fourth day of the lockdown, Raj looked frustrated. No one had stepped out. Raj was itching to go back to work, he told his friend on the phone. He said he was tense about what will happen to his factories. He hung up, walked up to his room and swung the door open.
After a while, I heard loud voices from Kanika’s room. “I told you I have nothing to do with Subhash any more," she was trying hard to not scream.
“Even a week ago, mother said you had returned home late," Raj was angry, his fists clenched.
“7.30 is not late, Raj. Don’t be a child," she was saying.
“Our family trusted its honour in you, Kanika! I cannot believe you are taking this lightly!"
“How am I responsible for your family’s honour?!" she said loudly, paused and then asked, “are you not disgracing the family by hurting the ‘ghar ki laaj’?" she used air quotes.
At this, Raj slammed the door shut.
Hearing the commotion, I saw Raj’s mother emerge from her room. I eagerly waited for her to barge into the room and ensure Kanika was not harmed. Instead, she asked Sohini to fetch her some water. And shooed me away.
We didn’t hear anything after that. Teak doors are thick enough to keep secrets.
I wish Sohini and Shamu exercised some discretion too. They would giggle, talk in forced whispers and sometimes that mush was too much to take. Sohini’s high-pitched laughter disturbed my afternoon nap almost every day.
Shamu did not have to step out for work. That meant he came to help her in the kitchen, they cleaned the large house together. They giggled when they were dusting the glassware, they laughed when they were chopping vegetables, they managed to share a cup of tea every evening, sitting on the unkempt lawn.
When they sat on the overgrown grass, I would hover around them until Sohini mockingly rebuked me and offered me a biscuit.
In his greed to spend more time with Sohini, Shamu had taken over Shrabonti’s work. She didn’t seem to mind, she got to spend more time in her room. “In the eight years that we have been married, we have been apart from each other so much," Sohini told Shrabonti. “It is nice to be home with him."
The following morning, I woke up thirsty. Just as I was sipping water from my bowl, Kanika walked towards me. She picked up the tennis ball I chew on, threw my rug into a large bag and leashed me. “Come on, Cuddles, we are going."
Raj’s parents were sitting in the living room, watching TV. I saw the screen filled with millions of people. Some were trying to get on overcrowded buses. They sat on top of it. They clung on to the doors. Many seemed to be tired and distraught but they didn’t stop walking. I heard the news anchor say they were walking hundreds of kilometres to get home.
Kanika walked up to Raj’s parents and touched their feet. They looked at her bewildered.
Raj walked in behind her, unsure of what to say. Fidgeting. At last he told her that there was no public transport. He refused to take his car out. The police are ensuring people step out for essential tasks only, he said.
On the TV, the anchor was saying that the cities, where the people worked earlier, did not need them any more. Strangely, the village did not need them either. The anchor was saying that the people who went back to their villages were ostracized.
Kanika looked at Raj and then looked at the TV screen. Millions were walking to a place where they could feel safe and be taken care of, a place where they belonged.
Without thinking for a second if her parents wanted her back or not, she tugged at my leash. I followed her faithfully.
Raksha Kumar is a multimedia journalist focusing on human rights, politics and social injustices.
FIRST PUBLISHED26.04.2020 | 09:00 AM IST