After Seven Long Years

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sheela Jaywant

It must have been around three in the afternoon, because my son had already had his lunch and had sat down to do his homework. His school-timings were from seven in the morning till one, and by the time he took the rickshaw home, it was 1:30. My dog and I, we usually waited for him outside the compound. It was maybe 49 degrees Celsius, probably even higher in the direct sun that day, for I distinctly remember we stayed in the shade of the khejdi tree that stood sentinel at the gate. I observed the sunflowers, drooping, yet facing stoically upwards: the stalks were nearly seven feet high and the blooms six inches across.

My maid, who watered the garden, had commented but a few weeks ago, “Madam, we haven’t had such lovely flowers for nearly seven years now.”

“Touch wood,” I reacted.

“This year, the crop is good, too,” she went on. “Jowari, bajri, ragi, the rural crops are ready for harvest. The water-levels in the wells and baodis have been better. They say the near the canals, the kinoo trees have borne fruit—not since little Sita was born have we seen such greenery.” And Sita, her daughter, was now seven years old.

In Jodhpur, at the edge of the Thar, in India’s Rajasthan, greenery is a rare luxury. It’s a semi-arid zone bordering a cruel, lifeless desert. The neem is the one tree that isn’t stark and thorny. The rest of the flora comprises tall shrubs that stray wandering camels munch upon. To have a garden like mine, a small patch, really, was the height of luxury. Precious water couldn’t be ‘wasted’ so we’d recycle and channel our kitchen overflow onto it. If you looked closely, the water looked ‘dirty,’ but it nourished the seeds, and the plants gave us great pleasure.

This was a good year, we’d guessed, and they should last through the winter, from September till February. (Most years, we got the municipal water supply for about half-an-hour every day, and we had to fill up drums and buckets and make do with whatever we could fill. We couldn’t afford to buy water from the private tankers.) Even the reptiles in our compound, the monitor lizards, and the owls sensed the goodness around them. Flocks of mynas and babblers chirped from dawn to dusk, feasting on seeds and nectar. The bunches of papayas were ripening from yellow to saffron, the ‘drum-stick’ trees were full of lacy, white inflorescences. Squirrels kept scurrying to and from the branches. We had to tie the pregnant bitter-gourd and pumpkin creepers that climbed our wire fencing to keep them from trailing on the ground. This was going to be a season of plenty.

“Ma,” Saurabh told me, “I think there’s going to be a dust-storm.”

Normally, I’d get irritated with any distraction, knowing well how he loved to wriggle out of doing math or Sanskrit. Besides, the season for dust-storms was over; it was the end of August. But, one could never take a chance. A glance outside the grilled windows seemed to confirm what he was saying. The sky was getting hazy; if we weren’t quick enough, the fine dust would creep in through every tiny crack and crevice, hang around the rooms, making us gasp uncomfortably, before it settled on the furniture. It’d take us days to brush and sweep it off.

“Hurry,” I barked, as I scurried from one window to another of that huge colonial bungalow, locking each pane tightly, drawing the curtains, sealing the gaps with wet balls or twisted ‘ropes’ of crumpled newspaper.

Then, “Lock that stupid animal up,” I said, annoyed at Lopsang, our energetic Labrador, who believed we were doing all this to entertain him; he was eagerly dragging and chewing our careful stuffing to shreds.

“Come, Loppy, come,” Saurabh patiently coaxed and tricked him into a bedroom, shut the door, and as we later discovered, ‘forgot’ to latch it tightly.

The sky seemed to be getting overcast, for the blinding sunlight was appearing less white; maybe it wasn’t a dust-storm after all. I thought, “It’s going to drizzle. Much needed, this rain. For years, there hasn’t been any. This year, already we’ve had a couple of strong pre-monsoon showers and that’s how the fields are green.”

The soil in Jodhpur is clayey: even a couple of inches of precious rain gets soaked up, the baodis and lakes fill up with water and weather stays moist and humid for many days. The soil is nutritious, and baby shoots really, well, shoot up from the ground, a pleasure to behold. No wonder the farmers heartily celebrate such years, such weather, when the Gods are exceptionally kind. Why, this year the spinach, radish, brinjals and okhras were so fresh, so tasty, so aplenty we actually avoided eating sprouted pulses, our staple through the lean months.

The phone rang. I presumed it was my husband, wanting to inform me that he’d be late yet again.

The urgency in his “hullow” made my heart lurch for a fraction of a second. Bad news? We lived in an Air Force world, and fatal accidents were part of the risky profession of fighter flying.

“Ya??” I said, bracing myself for whatever he’d say next.

Unexpectedly, he urged, “Hurry and lock all the doors and windows, there are insects raining from the sky.”

“What? I don’t understand.” He wasn’t one to play practical jokes. Had I heard wrong? “What?” I asked him again.

He repeated, slowly and clearly this time: “Yes, in-sects. Locust-clouds are over us. Locusts. Hurry up and do as you’re told.”

Our house was sealed already, for we’d anticipated dust. Saurabh and I stood at the window, watching the greyness get darker, like it was going to pour. Just then, one of his friends came by on a cycle and stopped at our gate. We saw him get off, put it on the stand, then stretch a hand out and look at the sky. We saw a look of great surprise and fright come over his face. His eyes widened, he flailed his hands about as if fighting off some invisible attacker, slapping the air, and raced towards our house. As we opened the door, he shouted, “Saurabh, get a stick, something’s falling from the sky and it’s alive.”

Moments later, we were all out, Lopsang included (it never did take him long to discover some way, violent mostly, to escape from any room), surrounded by confusion. I instinctively shut the door behind me. The dog was yelping, pawing and attacking these strange creatures that fell so hard and fast, snapping at them, shaking his head vigorously. The boys were armed with badminton racquets and brooms, thwacking ‘the enemy’ with all their might, running helter-skelter, helpless against the sheer numbers. The servant and her children were wailing like it was doomsday. The insects that fell on the cement drive made light metallic sounds: ‘tuk-tuk, tuk, tuk.’ I was hypnotized: it was raining locusts. This was unbelievable. The shiny black thingies were flying in all directions, finger-long, slender, hard, thudding onto the roof, tapping menacingly at the glass panes. The enormous, grey, monstrous cloud was really a swarm. It loomed dangerously in the now invisible sky, frightening us, not too high above us. This was the look of Death, coming in from the West, as if directly from the sun, now on its downward journey for the day. Many locusts settled upon the plants, the hedge, the trees.

“Woh, oh-oh,” yelled the boys excitedly, “Look-at-that-look-there-look-here-look-look-look.”

The pretty yellow flowers, the green leaves… were gone. In seconds, these creatures had chewed them to nothingness. Other than the stalks, the bare branches, we could see nothing. The weeds, the grass, the trees, all stripped bare, all gone.

The cries of the servants were getting comprehensible: what I was witnessing was a tiny episode in a Silent Calamity. The larger destruction was happening miles away; farmers must be in despair, I thought. Their precious crop, the harvest, the result of so many months, nay, years of slogging, was being reduced to nothing at all by these migrants from Hell. Famine, drought weren’t newspaper headlines here. They were realities that drew visitors to the crematorium.

On the road, the scooterists halted their vehicles and ran inside the closest houses or shops for shelter. Unlike in the rains, there was no way they could stand ‘neath trees or awnings. Cows, goats, cats, fled where they could. We stopped our battle. We gave up. There was a sudden drop in energy levels and we watched, helpless, frail, afraid of the might of the locusts. Millions of them. Those that reached the ground seemed to disappear below the surface. They sat on their tails menacingly, then rotated and screwed their way downwards.

Dreadful, fascinating moments, those, frozen forever in our minds. The ‘attack’ lasted for less than two hours. We saw the ‘cloud’ buzz away to some other hapless destination.

Later, there was gossip that they were driven here by jealous enemies. There were rumours that wicked people had cast the Evil Eye over this kingdom (democracy or not, the locals still ‘belong’ to the Maharaja by some complicated social custom). Someone said the swarm traveled from Africa across the sea and from here it’d go towards parts of China. Politicians had a field day offering packets of relief, making full use of this unexpected opportunity. The ruling government had to declare it an emergency. A pest-control company hired helicopters to spray hundreds of hectares with toxic chemicals to kill the beasts. One of our neighbours, a scientist, told us, “The female lays her eggs about six inches down in the soil. The larvae bore their way out to whatever remains above and eat it all up as they grow into nasty adulthood.” Whatever was left to eat.

To kill them, the soil itself has to be ‘treated’. This poisoned soil won’t support any crop for a couple of years, he said. I was in tears. I have seen streams of sweat pouring down the foreheads and backs of the simple rural folk here as they tilled their meager land. Their ambitions are simple: grow food, store it, eat it until the next good-rain year. They’ve shared their spare bounty with us. A bunch of thin green pods, a sprig of mint from their backyards. Some chillies, some garlic. Anything edible is valuable here.

When the weather-gods let them down, the locals flock to the towns in search of back-breaking labour: breaking stones or ferrying sand manually in metal vessels perched on their heads. That’s the only way they can stave off starvation. Life is hard, but there’s money, there’s food. When there’s no rain, there’s drought, when there’s a good crop, these locusts pay a visit. Yet, they don’t give up the toil. Ploughing, sowing, growing, cutting, threshing, sorting, storing… routine perfected over generations, not to be given up by bad naseeb.

Mercifully, even this year, a part of the crop had been harvested and stored in tin-sheet barns, safe from obvious harm. It was treated, guarded against rodents, fungus, mould. It wasn’t going to be enough to last the district for even a year, but something was better than nothing. Many of the grafted plants, some of the ber trees, weren’t affected.


I once asked a neighbour whom I met again long years after we’d left Jodhpur, what she remembered most about the place.

“The palaces?”

“Oh yes.”

“The exotic, coloured costumes, the royalty, the old-world charm?”

“Oh yes.”

“The rich musical heritage, the rugged terrain, the starlit skies?”

“Oh yes.”

Then she turned and looked me in the eyes. “Do you remember that afternoon when… you know, the planet seemed to turn against us, when we saw what Death looked like?”

It was my turn to answer: “Oh yes.”

That was one summer afternoon in the midst of a harvest season I wasn’t likely to ever forget.


Sheela Jaywant is a Mumbai based author of six books, which include: Quilted (stories of middle class India); Melting Moments (anthology of essays); The Liftman and Other Stories. She’s written a play, and is a columnist. She earns a living working in the administration of a hospital. E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]

Annual Ritual, Then Alone Again

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Sheela Jaywant

“They’ve come, Aaji-Bai, they’re here.” Alka yelled like it was unexpected.

The old ladies’ eyes clouded over with emotion. Bai lay in a corner, upon neatly folded layers of clean sheets, her frail frame curled up in a fetal position possibly due to some orthopedic condition. Maybe arthritis, maybe osteoporosis. Movement was possible, but painful. The skin was wrinkled, fragile. Aaji sat upon a string bed, legs dangling lifelessly post-stroke, a little distance away, her back resting against a single thin pillow helped up by the wall behind her. Both had bald gums. They incessantly moved their chins, drooled, and found it difficult to form words correctly. A stale odor of decay seemed to hover around them.

“Alka,” they said, all choked up, “warn them, tell them how we look, they will be afraid. They will think we’re witches.”

“How can you think like that? They are your grandchildren, grandnieces, nephews. They see you every year. They won’t be afraid. They have to come in.”

Bai: “My eyelids have curled outwards, they look so red and horrible.”

Aaji: “Old people look scary.”

“I shouldn’t have held the mirror for you. I shouldn’t have.” Alka sounded exasperated.

“Is that the taxi?”

The twenty-something servant girl, Alka, scurried out to help with the luggage, wiping her hands on the back of her frayed, once-colorful skirt.

The vehicle rattled and growled into the narrow, winding lane, the fauna on either side scraping its windows. The neighborhood children ran after it, touching and patting it as it passed by. It stopped by the giant peepul tree that stood sentinel over this ancestral house for at least a hundred years. Four bedraggled adolescents crawled out of the rusty, black and yellow Ambassador, stretching and twisting the tiredness out of their limbs.

The villagers, crowding around, gaped at the clothes: “They’re wearing shoes,” somebody whispered loudly. A snigger went around: these city-types thought they were Portuguese or British, hah?

One local smart aleck could tell them something: he had, oh yes he had, actually sat in a car once. And he knew, he had seen, the trees running alongside the road. One of the grandchildren sniggered right back. The sound reached Bai’s sharp ears. She could see but blurs through the window, but she could hear their voices clearly. Aaji couldn’t hear too well. But she didn’t have cataracts. She remarked to her sister-in-law who lay as helpless as she, and as excited: “They look so fair, so plump, we must get someone to rid this place of the Evil Eye.” She spoke up with authority, though her voice wasn’t strong. “They must be hungry, Alka, hurry up and put the rice on the stove.”

“Let me fetch the luggage first,” Alka retorted in a complaining voice, the sound echoing through the doors of the compartmentalized rooms of that huge old mansion, balancing a bag on her head, hugging a hold-all to her chest.

“Have you washed the rice thoroughly?” Bai took up the thread.

“Aaji-Bai, your grandchildren won’t get a single weevil or stone in their rice, I promise you. I’ve ruined my eyes cleaning the grains.” Alka swung the luggage to the floor of the large balcony, then scurried inside.

Sudanmama’s voice boomed through the thick, old, mud walls. “Everybody, washed your feet? Hands? Go in, then.”

The two old ladies were always referred to as a single entity, Aaji-Bai. Sisters-in-law since the ages of eight and nine (they married young those days, remember?), one was widowed before she reached puberty, and had come to stay permanently in her brother’s home, forever devoted to his family of nine children. The two ladies had grown together, slogged together, shared food, suffered grief, never separated, and were now, in the eventide of their lives, handicapped and lonely together. To the rest of the family, they seemed to share an identity.

Of the brood, Sudanmama was the only offspring of the clan who’d opted not to go Bombay or beyond so that he could be close to the Ancestral Home and Aaji-Bai. He lived in nearby Vasco and monitored their care. He had picked up the children from the harbor at Panaji and brought them here, four hours away by bus-ferry-taxi.

Aaji-Bai were frail and immobile, totally dependent on the servants to do every personal task. If something itched, they couldn’t scratch. Alka did it for them, guided by their instructions… where, how much, how long. Their grey, sparse hair was oiled and tightly tied into little knots behind their heads. Their necks stuck out from drooping shoulders, hunched backs, hollow chests. Wrapped in nine-yard saris, neither wore a blouse. The loose end, padar, of that unstitched garment covered their torso.

“Start frying the fish,” Bai ordered gently. “Feed them, they must be hungry.”

Aaji: “Before lunch, get rid of the Evil Eye. Throw four red chillies into the fire, then a fistful of mustard seeds. Make sure they splutter.”

The grand-teenagers smirked: “… these … superstitions …”

“You aren’t afraid of the Evil Eye?” Aaji-Bai chorused.


“How,” exclaimed the two grannies, “brave they are, see? The Evil Eye doesn’t affect the brave. Alka… lunch.”

“Oh I won’t keep anyone starving,” the exasperated Alka mumbled. “They’ve only just arrived and you’ve begun fussing already.”

The visitors, Sudanmama, his wife Sushilamami and the children, Geeta, Savita, Raina and Trilok, entered the kitchen where the two grannies and the servant were. The traditional formalities were done: in turn each touched the feet of the elders and bowed before the family deities. The rice and curries agitatedly bubbled in copper and brass cauldrons on the wood-lit stoves that squatted in a row at one end of the wall; slices of fish sizzled in coconut oil alongside them on a huge griddle. Smoke and aroma crept over and around, adding micro-thickness to the blackened walls. They sat on individual wooden platforms on the floor, chatting with each other, exchanging news about the family.

Each year, of the 43 members of the clan, at least 15 came here, to Canacona, Goa, during the holidays, either from Bombay, or Delhi, or even abroad. Some for a week, others for a fortnight, or a month. This was a ritual most of the families from the western coast did each summer vacation. The previous generation, until the 1950s, had seen a mass migration from the villages to Bombay and the longing to keep ‘in touch with one’s roots’ was strong. In the Native Place, the oldies made sure the dabbas or tins were full of sweet ladoos and savory shev or chivda.

Aaji-Bai repeatedly said of the children: “How clever they are, they speak English, they seem to know everything, so young, and yet so knowledgeable.” Hearing them talk about their young, city-bred lives was like stepping into another century, another world.

When, after lunch, the floor was smeared with cow dung, Alka spread her fingers to make circular designs so that it looked pretty when it dried. The children balked, and told her and Aaji-Bai about tiles. Glazed, smooth, white and clean that could be wiped so they’d look like new. No one used dung anywhere, anymore. The women nodded in appreciation: “Living in Bombay is something else,” they agreed. “We’re bumpkins.”

Aaji-Bai were as interested in feeding the children as they were in listening to the stories about their schools/friends/games/teachers/neighbors and more.

“How was the journey?”

The four grandchildren took turns, interrupting and overlapping their conversations constantly: “Ma made us get up before five.” “We took a taxi to the docks.” “We climbed a plank to the deck.” “We had to find place to spread our mats and luggage comfortably.” “Savita and Trilok got sick.” “Our water-bottles and food boxes were kept away from the edge.” “We saw some people from last year, too, you know, who were coming to their Ancestral Homes during the vacations.” “The ship stopped by Ratnagiri at night.” “One boat came close to our ship.” “There were men with lanterns and ropes and car tyres who helped everyone climb down… who wanted to go to Ratnagiri.”

Savita had flown in a plane. The grannies didn’t quite understand what it felt like to be in the sky. They had sat in a car. Maybe once, maybe thrice, they couldn’t recall. They were in awe that she knew something they could never experience. They asked her a hundred questions about that. How could something that was not a bird fly?

These annual guests were their link to a world beyond terrible loneliness and the 24×7 fear of death. Once, during a chat, Raina asked what would happen if one of them died. “Stupid,’ her cousins hissed and chatted on awkwardly. Aaji pragmatically replied: “The other will live on.”

Unpacking was an event. The ‘hold-all’ was a large, rectangular green canvas sheet with large pockets at either ends that held pillows, shoes, gifts, old clothes for Alka, new saris for Aaji-Bai, some steel utensils, an umbrella, books, underwear, footwear, talcum powder, soap, even one bedpan.

“So useful,” was Aaji-Bai’s appreciative comment when the last item was shown off. How big, they marveled, must be the market in Bombay, and how much money all these things must have cost. The biscuits, the chocolates, even fresh carrots and peas, for these were luxuries here, not easily available.

They had even got with them a plastic toy phone to show them what a phone looked like. Aaji-Bai were touched.

Each dawn, the children raced out to greet the buffaloes before they were taken to graze. For their morning baths, the water had to be drawn from the well and heated in a huge copper pot that stood on a frame above a pile of smoldering coconut husk.

“Aaji-Bai, in our flats, water flows out from taps.”

“We have electric geysers and proper bathrooms.”

It was hard to explain. Here, the single toilet shed was a distance away at the back of the house. The excreta that lay on the sloping shelf was eaten by stray pigs.

“We use a flush,” the children said. It took them an hour to tell them how it worked, what it was. Also, every flat had not one, but two toilets. Aaji-Bai couldn’t imagine why, but they listened, fascinated. Here, for a family of twenty, one toilet sufficed.

Trilok, the most talkative, told them more: “There are two or maybe four flats per floor in buildings. And how many floors? Four, five or even ten in a building.” The girls drew a sketch to describe what a building, a street, looked like. A map was drawn to show the locality where they lived.

“See Aaji,” said Bai one day. “These girls have our genes, our blood, and they can read, write, draw.”

“You are confusing illiteracy with intelligence, Aaji-Bai,” said Geeta, comfortingly. “You forget that you calculated what provisions you needed for an entire year. You stocked it with care. You supervised the harvesting of the coconuts and the threshing of the rice. Without stepping out of the house. That, too, for an extended family of so many members. Who taught you to preserve mangoes with precision? In so many different ways?”

Long forgotten pride fibrillated in the aged hearts. They blushed.

They had once learnt to write on a slate, with a chalk, but the memory of it was erased decades ago. Geeta put a pencil in their hands, one at a time, and helped each write her name on paper. They had written on paper before, but it had been an unaffordable luxury. The feel of the act of writing… what joy! The paper was held close to their faces so they could see.

Bai tremulously sang a song. Tunelessly, but in rhythm. Aaji said, “She made it herself, words and tune.”

“You wrote it?” asked Raina wonderingly.

“I don’t know how to write,” said Bai.

“When did you make it up?”

“When I was about your age.”

“You still remember it?”

“There are many more that I remember. But most I have forgotten.”

Geeta quickly got out her notebook to write down whatever she did remember. Aaji-Bai were embarrassed, overwhelmed by this unfamiliar attention. It was a strange feeling; the third generation was leading the way. Tradition said elders were wiser and better. “Here,” thought Aaji-Bai, “these children are our gurus.”

The house, with its load-bearing walls, was dark because of the few and small windows. The inside hadn’t been whitewashed for decades. The pyramid-shaped, high, tiled roof rose above a geometric network of wooden beams that rested on a central, enormous tree trunk that was the main pillar of the house. A thin cloud of cobwebs dispersed the few beams of sunlight that entered through the glass pieces located at some places on it. At night, little oil wick-lamps, diyas, were lit to dispel the darkness. One couldn’t call it light, so dim were the flames. Time and again the children tried to explain what electricity was. But for Aaji-Bai, who hadn’t stepped out in many, many years, and when they had, in the years gone by, it was never without an escort, a good reason… and then, too, to the home of a relative… it was fantasy.

Did they have friends? Why no, only menfolk had friends. Women had sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, nieces, moms, grandaunts… no friends. The children asked questions that evoked peals of laughter from the grannies.

Somehow, the roles had changed. Seasoned elders were learning from the raw young. “You don’t know what a switch is? It’s on the wall. You press it, it makes a “pit” sound, and the bulbs come on. You don’t know what a bulb is? Wires?” The children laughed at their ignorance, exasperated, but tickled. The grannies joined in, not minding them, not considering it ridicule but fun. No matter what, the company of the young ones gave them joy, brought them knowledge.

Evenings were long and interesting. Aaji-Bai were carried out, bundled in their sheets, to the balcony by the front door and kept there on the cement bench or a reclining armchair. The rustling trees, the singing insects, the starry sky, were unchanging. They tried to imagine bustling streets with cars, people, brightness. It was hard. But they were curious. And they asked questions, questions, questions.

In their turn, they told the children about the mangoes, bananas, jackfruits, pineapples, the different kinds of fish… stories about the other members of the family, from the past, the characters that lived in the village, the days of their youth. Untouched by ‘civilization’ it was a life of routine, little drama, robust struggle. Rupees weren’t needed. Bartering of goods was the system. Music, dance, drama were known of, but seldom witnessed. They were hungry to know about the lives of their progeny. They saw films? Plays? Tell us more, tell us more, they pleaded.

Through words, imagination, they skipped through two generations. The battery-operated transistor crackled alive occasionally, but the sound was so distorted, and Aaji-Bai hard of hearing, that it was practically of no use. It wasn’t just the big things that impressed them. Blackboards in schools, teachers—women teachers—wearing skirts, girls in trousers, swimming in large pools, cycling, traveling alone by train, all this was magical, incredible. They lapped up every word hungrily. Under the Portuguese, the information they had got was often only by word of mouth. Newspapers weren’t available. They had known no personal, social or economic freedom. Independence, governments, had made no difference to their lives. As females, they were ‘destined’ to cook, clean, tidy, chop, peel, wash… have babies. Families were large, tasks endless.

“Even leisure hours had to be used to stitch clothes, grind flour, or cook seasonal snacks.”

When the children gossiped about their friends: ‘she said this’; ‘he always does that’ and stuff, they were amazed at how human nature, no matter where, no matter how well-read, didn’t change.

After a fortnight—how the days had sped by, how much they’d learnt—the taxi from Vasco was hired for the day so the children could be taken to the ferry. Beyond the river, they would travel up by bus to Panaji to board the ship to Bombay.


“Alka, we can hear the sounds of the children. Doesn’t seem like they’ve gone.”

“Did they eat the snacks?”

“Do you remember, about the cinema they talked of? Something about photographs moving, talking, on walls?”

“There are little machines that do the grinding… this electirissitee… what could that be?”

“The phone… Raina got us that toy, that was nice… couldn’t see properly because of my eyes…”

“Next year they are going to get us spectacles.”

And the wait for the next summer visit, the countdown of eleven months, began.


“I’m a hospital administrator who enjoys writing. I do a weekly column for a local newspaper, write for TC and” E-mail: cmjaywant[at]

Turn Around

Best of the Boards
Sheela Jaywant

She recoiled and whimpered as he swooped her up in his arms, turned her face away from the stiff uniformed chest. The skin of her lower back, where her blouse and sweater had moved up, away from her flannel, trouser-like salwar, felt the cold buckle of his belt. She recognized the emblems and stripes of the Indian Army. Conditioning made her cringe.

“Stay away, Badriya,” her father used to warn, “Hide when you see any stranger.”

Once, she would have sprinted and sunk into the shrubbery around the village at the mere suspicion of a newcomer’s presence. Now, her limbs weren’t protesting as they might have before the earthquake, when, just at the start of winter, the house fell down. She had been sleeping, cuddled between her mother and brothers, on rough mattresses spread over the bare floor. The staccato shots that echoed across the Pakistani border didn’t bother her; she was used to those. Then, suddenly, she was beneath a gray, weepy sky, shivering, alone, surrounded by stones. Had she imagined that thunder-like sound? Where was she? Was she dreaming? Where was Ma? What was all this… wood? Who was crying? Allah, what was happening? The scene still seemed real, yet distant. The mountains were there, and some trees, but where were the houses? In the darkness she saw hands, legs, faces. Unmoving. She saw familiar clothes, vessels, crushed, spread out. Moans stabbed the silence. Wails of pain. Inhuman, indistinct, scary.

Next day, someone removed the stones, picked her up. Then she felt pain, hunger, cold, miserable. One brother had died in her mother’s arms, she learnt, and her mother in the Army hospital at Srinagar. The others had gone to Allah in their sleep, their bodies crushed by the fallen walls. She was carried, like now, in a soldier’s arms, to a tent. The bloody flesh that hung from her leg was swabbed with a burning liquid and bandaged. Despite the acrid smell and nausea, she ate warm dal and rotis. Someone who she had been taught was ‘the enemy’ fed her. She swallowed the spoonfuls instinctively. Unwillingly. She was terrified, helpless, confused. He held a crackling radio to her ear. ‘Aid for the earthquake victims was coming in from all parts of the world,’ she heard. At ten, her world ended at Kupwara, Kashmir. She wasn’t sure where Delhi was.

This man, who was carrying her now, said nothing. Where was he taking her? Who was he? Would he do ‘things’ to her? Kill her? What?

It had been two-and-a-half months since the earthquake. Badriya had worn and eaten whatever she was given. Quiet, withdrawn, sad. Her leg was still in plaster. She couldn’t even limp without help. The man carried her over the rubble in the village. A light blanket of green covered the scape. The clouds over the mountains were thinner, the morning sun more yellow. The snow had melted into a grey slush. Tiny buds dotted the almond and apple trees. In a month, the boughs would be bare no more. Amongst the ruins she recognized some collapsed structures. A lump came to her throat. Her body moved with the rhythm of his steps. She moved her eyes to see whatever… was left of her world. They crossed the graveyard. Did her father lie there? The others? Who knew? Beyond it stood the tents where the man was purposefully heading. What was he going to do to her? Where could she run? How? Allah, help me, help me, she mumbled in prayer.

The loud murmur from inside one tent fell as soon as the flap was moved aside. A second’s silence, then a single voice: “Badriya?” Followed by a cheerful roar: “Badriya-a-a.” She raised her head from the man’s chest and… flailed her arms and injured legs to get down and partly hop, partly crawl towards her childhood mates, sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the makeshift ‘classroom’ where they were following the school routine, doing lessons in a temporary-camp environment. Each face she recognized brought tears to her eyes. Hug, hug, hug. The uniformed man picked her up again, to carry her to her place on a mat in one corner.

She snuggled trustingly now; she was amongst her own, he was no longer the ‘enemy’.


“I’m a hospital administrator whose work can be read on and I do a weekly column for a local newspaper and my book, Quilted—Stories of Middle Class India, has been reviewed on” E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]

The Meeting, Short and Fleeting

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Sheela Jaywant

It wasn’t a knock, more like a single, strong thud on the door. It startled him terribly, reminded him of… what? He couldn’t remember. His pulse raced, though, for there was something amiss: he’d just stepped outside a second or two ago, to check his mailbox and hadn’t seen anyone at all. He hadn’t heard the lift stop either. Nor had he heard any footsteps. The old tiles gave away the slightest movement. Of course, the bell hadn’t been working and he’d been postponing getting it repaired. Friends who dropped by didn’t need it anyway. They merely called out his name. But no one ever came in the afternoon. The temperature outside must have been around 38 degrees C. He unlatched the door. A young woman stood there. Saleswoman?

“I’m doing a project on birdhits and flight safety,” she said even before he fully opened the door. He wasn’t used to being thus disturbed in his routine. A most unusual thing to say, he thought. No salesperson, this.

“A project? You could have called,” he said, still blocking her way, “and made an appointment.” She seemed to ignore his words. Ignored even him, then climbed over the inch-high threshold and almost forced her way in. Good manners gave way to good sense, and he let her in.

“There was no time,” she said. Her voice was shrill, whiny, and there was something about her that made him suspicious, uncomfortable. She seemed to know her way around, appeared to be familiar with him, treated him as an acquaintance.

Long years of training had honed his instincts to danger. This person alerted his nerves.

Of course, it had been almost five years since he’d hung up his uniform, but the basic qualities of a fighter pilot remained. He wanted to be proactive, to be prepared, to know his ‘adversary’. Could one call a chit of a girl an adversary? Couldn’t say how old she was, could be twelve or twenty. She was slight, but with broad, stooping shoulders. Long fingers, short legs, short hair, darting eyes. Expressionless. She wore a furry poncho-like blouse over her jeans that flapped as she walked. She seemed to skip rather than walk. She looked like a foreigner. Or perhaps she was from the North East, though their noses weren’t so long. Slight, but sturdy. Those people did have complexions like these, specially the tribals. But for a tribal to have come all this way to Goa on the southwest coast… didn’t seem feasible. He was curious, rather than suspicious. Something was bothering him. It wasn’t just the element of surprise of her visit that made him uncomfortable.

“What is this project, who are you doing it for, how did you trace me, what do you need from me?” When Rajkumar got irritated, he always talked fast and he was annoyed at himself for having allowed her in, for not being able to figure out why he was so uncomfortable with her.

“May I introduce myself?” she asked calmly, eyeing him intently.

He nodded, surprised at the confidence of this stranger. “Yeah. I’m Rajkumar, retired, Wing Commander, Indian Air Force…”

“I know. I’m Cheel,” she said.

He shook her hand.

She clutched his tightly for a moment, just a moment.

“So, Cheel, sit down here. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Just water, thanks.”

She took short, quick sips of the liquid, enjoying it as if it were a rare wine, raising her little chin up as she swallowed it. He could almost see the liquid travel down her throat.

“How can I help you, ma’am?” She was staring at the Air Force mementos displayed on the wall, the shelves, engrossed.

Quickly, but in clear tones and words, still staring at the photographs and the statuettes, she told him she was from the University of Ambar, West Bengal, a zoologist, doing her Ph.D. on birds and their impact on humans, in her state. It was much later, after she’d gone, that he wondered who was paying for her fare, her stay… Indeed, where was she staying; there wasn’t a hotel for miles near here, nor any public transport. Was there really an Ambar in West Bengal? In retrospect, another revelation: Ambar meant ‘sky’ in Hindi.

“You,” it sounded more like an accusation than an enquiry, “had had a birdhit in April 2004, over Ghaziabad. You were flying a Mig 23. Here (and she thrust out a file at him) are all the details.”

“How did you… where did you…?” He didn’t read it. He should have.

“Got it from the Net.”

The Air Force put these details up on the Net? Weren’t they secret? But that, too, he thought of after she’d gone.

“Besides,” she continued, “It was all over the papers, and I have the cuttings.”

How could he have been so slack… How could he not have asked to see those cuttings… Ah, he learned the hard way that some moments couldn’t be rewound.

“Here, I’m going to switch on my tape recorder, so I can go through what you’ve said and be sure there’s no mistake.” She then walked across the small drawing room and went straight… as if she knew… towards the corridor. There she stood before an ugly chair, a folding one, made of green metal pipes, rusty hinges and faded brown canvas.

“That,” said Rajkumar, “was my ejection seat.”

“Tell me,” she said facing him directly. “What happened?”

“It was an early morning sortie. I was about 3 kilometers up when I had a birdhit. I ejected.”


“I landed in a field; the chopper came to rescue me; I was in hospital for a week.”


“I was back to flying after a month’s rest.”


When Rajkumar got angry, he roared. Lady or no lady, this was getting a bit too much. “Then nothing.” She wasn’t fazed by his volume or tone.

“Did you see the bird you hit?”

“Haven’t you done your homework? There’s never any time to see or even blink, dammit. The damage is done and within seconds you’re out. Or dead.”

“That was true for the bird. It didn’t see you.”

“That’s life.”

“That’s death.”

“What kind of research is this?”

“What bird was it?”

“A vulture, maybe eagle, I don’t know. They’d sent the feathers and flesh that they found in the crash debris to the Bombay Natural History Society for identification. No, it was a kite, I remember… I forget the scientific name… They said it was rare in that area, very unusual. Must have weighed about five to eight kilos, rather big, too, they said… You’re looking pale, can I get you some water?”

“Rare in the area… It was hungry, searching for food.”

“Yeah, perhaps. Plenty of cattle dying out there those days, with the drought.”

“No place to live… ” Had he heard right? She seemed a bit ill, now, this girl, he thought. What was she mumbling under her breath? He tried to guide her back to the drawing room where they could sit comfortably on the sofa, but she insisted on standing before that ejection seat.

“What did you feel?”

“To my bad luck, I’d lost some speed, and the aircraft went into a spin as well. Which meant it was yawing, pitching, and rolling at the same time.”

“What does that mean?”

“You haven’t done your homework. You’re doing research, eh? It means the aircraft’s nose and tail were see-sawing, the wings were see-sawing and moving sideways, too, all at the same time, whilst hurtling down to the earth.”

“You didn’t get the handle the first time, did you?”

“No, I was lucky the second time. The first time, nothing happened. Then the seat fired.”


“I tumbled upwards, unconscious with the blood flow and everything till the parachute jerked me awake once more. I saw the plane go down, down. There was a sharp pain in my back. But I was more worried about where I’d land.”

She interrupted him. “All birds worry about that. All their lives.”

He was now enjoying the narration, remembering an episode that none but those who’d been through it would understand. (And none were interested in hearing about.) Those words, ‘eject-eject-eject’, the sudden gush of adrenalin, that fear, the overcoming of it, the lessons he’d learnt as a pupil, the blessings of his ancestors, the holding of the breath as he faced unknown danger, the surge of blood… and the catapulting, up and away, defying gravity, forced out into space, not knowing whether he’d be dead or alive… not knowing whether he was dead or alive till the parachute opened, floating down earthwards, seeing the site of the crash below him, realizing it wasn’t even a couple of seconds since he’d been hit and he was already safe on the ground… Later, in the hospital, he read a lot of books about religion, near-death experiences, life after death, he was rambling now, soliloquizing, opening his heart to her.

He heard her interrupt: “…yes, the body does move slower than the soul, doesn’t it?”—and ignored it.

“…Ah, what was interesting to my children, though, was the ejection kit.”


“I’ll show you.” He dragged a small bag out from under the ejection seat. The girl watched, fascinated. “This is the survival kit. The knife—see the three edges? They’re sharp and tough, can slice through the neck of a grown buffalo with a swipe. Two kilos of solid steel. (He almost handed it over to her to feel it, then withdrew, for giving a weapon to a stranger would be stupid. Years of military conditioning at work!) Made in Russia. There were chocolates in this metal box. And this is the water bottle. The medicines, of course, weren’t needed in my case. Nor the flares. I discarded those. There was a compass, too, I think it’s lost now.”

“Did you keep something of the bird?”

“Why, no. There isn’t anything to keep in a crash. Everything gets incinerated. Very tiny bits of feather or bone or flesh or a smattering of blood is what we scrape off and put into plastic bottles to send for identification. The canopy pieces may have a little hair or something stuck to it.”

“Didn’t you ever wonder why such a rare bird hit you? I mean, why was it there at all?” She seemed on the verge of tears. Perhaps he was imagining it. Perhaps she was one of those very involved activists fighting for the rights of birds of prey. She was difficult to read. So far she hadn’t asked him any technical questions, though the tape-recorder was on.

“Nope. Some stupid bird came in my way, caused a loss of 22 crore rupees to the country. Such a lovely machine reduced to ashes.”

She seemed to be shivering.

“Are you ill?” he asked, now concerned.

“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just that… You’re talking about money, about a machine. Wonder what the bird felt.”

He was convinced: she had to be an animal rights’ lawyer.

“Birds feel? In any case, there wasn’t any time to think or anything; it all happened so quickly.”

“Are birds usually found at 3 kilometers up in the air?”

“Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, maybe not. Didn’t think about that. We’d learnt about it, but can’t remember now. It’s been a long time ago.”

“Adventurous bird.”

“Yeah, maybe it came to see the planes.” He was sarcastic.

She mumbled something again. It sounded like “It did,” but Wing Commander (Ret’d.) Raj Kumar couldn’t be certain. He offered her some tea, biscuits. She didn’t want any.

“Birds are curious,” she said softly. “They can see, they want to see closely, any stranger in the sky.”

Silence. Wacko, thought Rajkumar. He wished he wasn’t alone. Who knew what this woman’s intentions were. He was certain she wasn’t into research or anything, but couldn’t make out what she wanted. If her objective was theft, she was wasting her time; he owned nothing of value. Did she have an accomplice outside? To break the silence, he spoke. “My wife makes excellent tea. You could wait till she comes. She’ll be home soon.”

“I know, by five,” she said confidently.

“Yeah, five,” he echoed. Vaguely, he wondered, how did she know that? They disturbed him, her words. He decided to distract her.

From the ejection kit bag, he took out the folded parachute. She felt it with her fingers. Then she swung around and draped it around herself. The action twirled it in the air. It floated up above her head, up to the ceiling, then fell upon her and to the ground. She stepped out.

He said, “This is what saved me. The guys who packed it, who checked the ejection seat, they did a good job. I’m here because of them. I was lucky I could eject in time. Some pilots are unlucky. They go down. There’s no time to eject. Bang and it’s over.”

“No time, quite right,” she whispered. “So quick, no time.”

He began to put away the kit. “What about the questions you wanted to ask me?” he said, guiding her from the corridor to the drawing room again.

She stroked the ejection seat, the small kit-bag, then followed him.

“Afterwards, what did you think about, in hospital, at home?”

“Initially about the pain I had in the back. I couldn’t move my neck, or sit or walk without wincing. I took medicines for the pain. Then, after ten days or so, I began to walk around in the house. Took me about a month to really feel normal again. I was lucky, didn’t have a compression fracture or anything.”

“What about the bird, did you think about it?”



“Never. Why?”

“It must’ve suffered, too. Broken wings, crushed back.”

“Nope, it was dead before it knew it was hit.”

“You think so?”


“But at the moment of impact? It might have felt something? Pain, perhaps fright?”

“Perhaps, I don’t know. Never gave it a thought. Is that part of your research? Birds and flight safety?”

“The safety of birds also ought to be a consideration, right?”

Yes, he thought, this nut is a bird lover all right. Maybe a vegan. Better change the topic. Didn’t want any tears or scenes.

“…right?” She was waiting for her answer.

“Absolutely,” he said diplomatically, wondering if her tape-recorder was working and what material she was going to get from it.

“You flew for a living…”

“Birds fly for a living, too,” he joked, trying to dilute the seriousness.

“It’s not the same thing.” The veins in her neck were getting turgid; lines of tension were visible on her forehead.

“Ma’am, Cheel, Ma’am,” he said cautiously, comfortingly, in a ‘there-there’ manner. “Are you sure you won’t have something to drink?”

She shook her head so vigorously, even her shoulders moved, and her poncho flapped around her. When she stretched her elbows out, they actually looked like wings. What lengths these activists go to, he thought, wearing these funny outfits.

As suddenly as she’d come, she packed her things into her sling bag and headed for the door.

“You’re going?” he asked.

“Yes.” She was abrupt.

“Wait. In a few moments, my wife will be here. She’d like to meet you, I’m sure.” He could clearly hear the rumble of his wife’s car in the distance.

“I’m going,” she said, opened the door, and with a quick look at him, stepped out. He watched her trot away, briskly, puzzled at the intensity with which she saw him. Her eyes seemed to pierce him, through him. Her glance was brief, but intense. He didn’t know what to make of this encounter. Was she planning to return?

He put his hand on his chest… What was that? A sharp, sudden, agonizing pain in his chest. As he fell, he saw his wife’s car come into view.

It was in the ICU, when he was stable, that he told his wife about her.

“You were hallucinating,” she said. Happens, sometimes, when the oxygen supply to the brain is hampered, the doctor explained.

No, he insisted. She was real. No one believed him. It was whilst he was recuperating, in the peace and solitude of the ward that he tried to make sense of the incident. All that he could remember of her was her hooked nose. Like a beak, he thought.

It was on the third day that two things occurred to him: cheel means ‘kite’ in Hindi and how did she know that he’d pulled the handle twice before he ejected? He hadn’t told anyone. How did she know? He sat up, shocked.

The pain in his chest was overwhelming, as if it had been hit by a tractor. Is this what it feels like to be hit by an aircraft, he thought before he passed out.

The Cardiac Pulmonary Resuscitation team was by his side in minutes.

“Strange,” said the intensive care doctor who attended to him. “The ECG is normal, but this patient showed all the classical signs of a cardiac arrest.”

Stranger still was the single feather that his wife found stuck to the ejection seat. She’d never seen it before. It belonged, said an ornithologist friend, to a tropical bird of prey.

“I’m a 48-year-old freelance writer from India. My work, mainly features and interviews, has been published in several national newspapers. In 2003, my book Quilted, Stories of Middle Class India was published (reviewed on I do a weekly column for a local newspaper. On the Net, my work can be read on” E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]