FICTION : Which Way the Wind Blows by Midhun Harilal
Ravi stirred him from sleep that morning. Sitting upright on his bed, Vishnu looked at his elder brother who stood before him with an empty face that betrayed a certain degree of comfort, or so it occurred to him later. He also noticed that the balcony was opened no sooner than he was woken up; the warmth of midday was starting to settle in. He tried hard to clear his mind.
“Appa is no more,” Ravi broke the silence, only to leave the room soon after.
A pair of birds that were perched on the parapet took flight to Ravi slamming the door behind him. Vishnu watched them as they rose and sailed under the blazing heat, to a distance somewhere over the sea before dissolving in plain sight. The desolate clear sky left behind by the couple cast an ominous air upon him; a rather familiar feeling that he very well knew he could not easily shake off.
Vishnu was ten then. His brother, fifteen. That evening their father held them unusually tight in his arms from his easychair at the verandah; his face pressed firmly against Vishnu’s tender belly. He could sense his father’s tears soaking through his t-shirt. Ravi tried to pull away embarrassed, silently praying that his classmate Anju next door wouldn’t appear at the fence seeking Amma now of all times. With dusk falling and hymns and bells from the temple chiming in agreement, their father stood up at length intimating his wife that he was going for an evening walk. She closed herself in the pooja room at this time, chanting the Vayu Gayathri mantra. It was a Wednesday, Vishnu would remember for that reason. Their father put on the household slippers as per standards, except only this time he was carrying a jute bag strapped over his shoulder. He stopped at the gate momentarily and then walked away seaward. Vishnu stood there watching till he was out of view, the patches of tears on his cotton starting to dry from the soft breeze.
The balcony door flapped on its hinges, squealing at the wind. Vishnu had only recovered from his thoughts and almost cursed his brother for not flipping the stopper on. When reality struck him cold he shut the door, washed his face and walked down the stairs to the foot of the verandah. There sat Ravi by his father’s stiff body, which lay on a reed mat. On seeing Vishnu he said,
“Anju cannot come. God, why did you bring him now....We should get done with this at the earliest, tomorrow morning.”
Vishnu couldn’t figure what really was colder, the dead or the hearts of the living. He wondered had his mother been alive would she have spilt a single tear at all.
He recalled this with disappointing clarity. That entire night, their amma refused to be picked up from the foot of the staircase. She whimpered incomplete words through her nose, with a slip or note of some kind in her hand that she had found tucked away under the bedsheets. Family, friends and neighbors filed in one after the other the next day. Their Uncle took the boys aside to say:
“Appa didn’t want any of us, so he traveled far away. Ravi, you should take care of your brother and my sister,”
Vishnu didn’t understand. Ravi pretended like he did.
Later that week at school, Ravi got into a fist fight with a senior who called his father out for running away with his lover. Or at least, that was the talk of the town. On their walk home, Vishnu said,
“Don’t worry Anna, you did the right thing. How can he say that about Appa-”
“No! He’s not our Appa,” Ravi cut in. Vishnu stopped and watched his brother walk the street ahead of him, fuming. The boy started to realise that the walls he grew in had begun to crumble, that his home was not the same anymore to say the least.
Ravi had agreed now to perform the rites, presumably only intending not to cause an impediment. Tulsi garlands, coir, bamboo and other essentials had been arranged by their Uncle on Vishnu’s request, though he refused to enter the house. Whilst the few that took part in the funeral had a lot to talk amongst themselves. Vishnu, fixated at the toes tied together, let the sly mumbles bounce off his ears as he turned a blind eye to the people there. He wished Sameer was there. Not just there but throughout the time his father wasn’t.
For five years since the disappearance, his father’s intangible presence was forcefully made forgotten in the house. If the name was taken, that too scarcely so, it was met with scornful eyes and distaste in the mouths. Amma even occasionally, when she broke down in the afternoon amidst housework, took away his belongings secretly to the hearth in the old kitchen. For all but Vishnu, that man was long dead. Inasmuch as the echoes of a desolate courtyard he walked into after school, the termite infested easychair, books and clothes stacked away into one broken wooden almirah and the stone tiles by the well all the more dry bothered him. He silently took to the wooden almirah to borrow some books of his father’s, between the pages of wisdom his father had acquired, he sometimes smelt the khadar that blanketed it. This brought to him inexplicable reassurance. So it went and so he quietly waited.
Their mother died before she could see Ravi married off and settled. This was her only wish: for her son to bring home a beautiful woman before her first year of commemoration. Thereupon Ravi got married to Anju at the age of twenty-four. Their Uncle made the arrangements and the wedding was a small one. Later in the afternoon, as Vishnu was helping pull the decorations down, mail was delivered to his name. Upon tearing the seal open, imprints of writing in reverse on the blank side caught his eye, thundering familiarity of the writing sprung to his mind. Upon turning over, he at once knew and took off. Along the way his father had walked out of his sight a decade ago, his feet raced. Faster than the wind he ran; the paper fluttering between his fingers and his heart almost slipping out his throat. He slowed down on reaching the beachfront. He could make out the sea between the buildings; only a few steps from feeling the sand of that stifling afternoon and knowing what had been of his father, he thought.
Thus began the letter:
If you don’t understand, I should know that no one would…”
In it he wrote of a disease, an unrecoverable one that crawled upon him. In it he wrote that it was too late for him to do anything, that medication would only go in vain. That his life was being reduced to a few years of nothing. But he wouldn’t let that be. He didn’t want a life full of nothing be what comes of him in the end. The mediocrity and pain of awaiting death in a bed kept him up several nights in cold sweat.
Vishnu’s hands trembled. The winds were growing fierce and for a split second he thought of why he had run all the way. He flicked the sheet straight and read on.
He now pictured in his head as his father talked of the breeze from another place, the valley below a mountain pass where he stayed at the moment, teaching English in a local government school. He went from place to place casting about for a change of air, and his legs are too tired to rove on further now. “I want to see our mother, listen to her gentle whispers one last time,” he concluded the letter. Vishnu folded the letter shakily in his arms and pressed it close to his chest. The sea gently whispered to console him, reaching for his feet to collect his tears and make the sorrow hers.
Vishnu met Sameer at college, a final year student at that time. They attended the same literature club and through their adoration for the language they happened to talk. As days passed, their relationship deepened in intimacy and Vishnu placed confidence in Sameer to open up about his father - something he had never done before. At evenings Vishnu brought along his father’s collection to the college library so that they could read together. With every page they flicked past, Vishnu let open and relentlessly drained himself of the affection he had long guarded since childhood and Sameer opened his arms out wide. He had found his safe haven.
As the final exams neared for Sameer, Vishnu let him in on the letter his father had sent.
“Do you think Appa will have the courage to visit home if he comes? No…we should go check the beach bus stop every evening from tomorrow!” said Sameer, with utmost clarity.
After his graduation party a month later, Sameer sat alongside Vishnu drinking leftover beer on a boulder by the sea. From there, they had a clear view of the bus stop to which Vishnu turned his head whenever an engine purred to halt, which had become a habit now.
“Are you leaving for higher studies?” Vishnu said abruptly. Sameer glanced over with apparent worry in his face.
“I don’t know what to tell you…”
After a minute of profound silence, Sameer inquired, “Would you come with me?”
Vishnu nodded in response. Smiling, Sameer stood up, smacked Vishnu at the back of his head and jumped off the boulder. “Come get me, Junu!” he cried and ran on the newly wet sand. Vishnu howled and had only begun to chase when a deep and shaky voice from behind stopped him,
The pyre was lit early in the morning at the cremation shed at one end of the beach. The dhoti draped body will soon be ashes and then scattered at the sea, the sea that gave him birth as Appa would say, Vishnu thought. The evening before yesterday when he had seen his father a decade later at the same beach, his eyes brimmed with tears. He turned his head, gaze unmoved to call, “Sameer?! Look!”
Between the hug and later as they sat through the sundown, he cried. Appa did not talk much, nor did he apologize for anything. He knew his son had forgiven. Along the line he said something like, “Do the winds speak to you, Vishnu?”
Sameer sat on the concrete footing feets away from them.
They later walked home together, the son leading his father by the hand. A childish dismay appeared on his dreadfully sunken face as he looked around at the rubber that surrounded them. On reaching the gates of the house, he hung his head, Vishnu would recall. He also mentioned feeling like an intruder.
Ravi probably felt out of place for sometime; he stood at the door appalled for a good minute before walking in. Because his wife was at her parents’
“Appa can stay if it’s for the night, that’s it,” he said.
Vishnu took a moment to gather the word used….
Sleep was out of question for him, hence he accompanied his father at the verandah. Silvery moonlight fell flat on his bare back, as he lay facing the garden. Vishnu put himself next to him.
“Appa, there’s something about Sameer, the guy with me at the beach…”
The listener remained as silent as the night, all ears. Lastly he said:
“Come with me,”
Sameer held Vishnu’s hand. They boarded the bus from the beachside. The only remaining vestiges of the wind from the sea rustled as they rode past. It sounded like Appa, thought Vishnu to himself.
About the writer :
Midhun is an engineering student from Kanyakumari who has an unparalleled love for writing. With a rather traditional approach to watching films, reading and passing weekends stealing stories close to the roots at his grandmother's, he relentlessly strives to meet his innate need to write. He finds music equally expressive.