Oh Laxmi! by Catherine Forsayeth

Chapter 1

Ravi’s goats had multiplied in the last couple of seasons and many of the females had twins that were sturdy and energetic, so no hand-rearing of weaklings was necessary. The goats now numbered two hundred and seven with more on the way. It was the blessing of Laxmi to give him such prosperity with the goats and he had also been given two daughters.

The older one, Amali, plainer than one of his best goats, whose dupatta hung on her bony shoulders like the sheet on the end of an uncomfortable bed, was taciturn with him. She was too dark and quiet, with front teeth that sat square and hard on the dark bottom lip as though waiting for a guest to open a creaking gate and walk through. He knew she knew this and that she worked extremely hard at her school made him and his wife happy. She had a good brain in that strange skull of hers and even today she was at school sitting an exam for a scholarship to attend the university. They were going to need more money now that they were in their teens and approaching marriageable age.

He would have a great deal of trouble finding a husband for Amali unlike the younger one Leila who was given to exuberant shows of affection with her mother and sister. As a little girl often he found her little hand creeping into his which he found sweet and this made his heart do a strange thing inside his chest; it expanded in a glow of warmth that felt like the hand of Parvati was caressing him. Before his marriage he was not a man given to interest in the company of women, who were a foreign entity, like something out of a book he had never read but had heard was a good read and on his betrothal he had feigned smiles, happy greetings and congratulations. Mamta on the other hand had given great thought to marriage, not liking the idea at all but as she grew older, agreed that Ravi could marry her after a serious argument with her father about it.

“You are not getting any younger ladki. I am sorry to say you have not had anyone looking your way for many years.  Your mother and I are not getting younger either! Look at how she is!” He swept his arm around to indicate the woman in the shadows whose skin was turning leathery on her thin arms.

“You have to concede this. It is not good for a woman to be alone. Who will look after you when you are our age and older? Your sisters? Your brothers? You know what will happen; they will resent you and use you like a slave! Be sensible girl! This might be your very last chance!”

“Father the man is apparently blind in one eye!”

“So what? He still has one good one and he can see what a catch he has made in you! He is a nice man, a good man. He will treat you well.”

“Father he is a shepherd! A goatherder!”

“Yes. He is a goatherd. My father was a labourer who taught himself to read and write and look at what we have today thanks to him and his hard work. Don’t talk to me about what a man does for a living!”

And so one afternoon, Ravi’s mother came to him and said simply.

“My son, you are to be married to Mamta Joshi next month.”

His hand holding a tin cup began to shake and he looked down at his feet covered in a fine dust with little crusts of dirt around the toenails.

On the night of the wedding, he was like a tin robot wound up too tight running on its jerky feet. There were many lewd jokes about the old maid with her fat bottom and the old bachelor not being able to do jiggy jiggy because,part blind, he grabbed the pillows instead of his bride’s arse. He tried to ignore the jokers or even smiled wanly but he felt offended for her and for himself.

As they lay together that first night and he saw Mamta’s black eyes turn with their white meniscus towards him with a clear and steady gaze, he felt wonderfully clear that Mamta was going to be a true and good wife. So he felt determined that just as he had said in the Kanyadaan, he would never fail in the pursuit of dharma, artha and kama. How many times in other men’s weddings had he heard the recitation of the Kamasukta and only heard the words as an irritating interruption to the food and dancing. However today he had had to listen and make the promise. He had stumbled and breathed too much through his nose but now as he looked at Mamta in the darkness with light glowing softly on the contours of her face and shoulder he understood the power of it.

 Who offered this maiden? To whom is she offered?

Kama (the god of love) gave her to me, that I may love her

Love is the giver, love is the acceptor

Enter thou, the bride, the ocean of love

 With love then, I receive thee

May she remain thine, thine own, O god of love

Verily, thou art, prosperity itself

May the heaven bestow thee, may the earth receive thee

Thus in the years to come, he treasured his Mamta as something holy, something given to a man who didn’t deserve such a blessing and he worked to show her.

*

On this day in Kirkee, with the temperature sitting for the twenty fourth day straight, on forty two degrees Celsius, Ravi was moving his flock of goats up the bitumen road near the Cantonment where the trees fringed the road and formed a glorious cool dark cave that he lingered in. The banyan trees dropped their aerial roots from great heights in vertical webs of roots and just behind them the vivid red of the flamboyants and the glorious cascades of vanilla and purple bougainvillea formed fantastic interjections of colour in the landscape.

He was resting on a pile of gravel dirt and rocks letting the goats mill about and enjoy the shade too and had taken his orange turban off since it was so hot and his head ached, when he heard a faint crack and rustle, automatically tipping his head up and in that profound moment when life is about to change, a voice familiar your whole life says like a stone dropping in the well of knowing. “Don’t look up Ravi, you don’t look up under the trees, a bird might come and shit in your eye or a nut or branch might fall and there you are, tschak, that’s it forever!” But it wasn’t a bird or a branch it was one of the massive tubular black seed pods of the Indian Laburnum whose panicles of bright yellow flowers hang like grapes from its spindly frame, that fell and hit him in the right eye, his good eye. He dropped to the ground screaming, his large orange turban fell too, a huge bright pimple on the black stony verge. The goats, surprised by this sudden noise and abrupt movement lunged forward knocking into each other as Ravi kept up his caterwauling.

Precisely at this moment from around the bend a motorbike enjoying the empty road a few minutes before came at great speed. Seeing the goats now dispersed all over the place the rider had little chance to make a clear path through them and began blasting his horn and kicking his feet out on either side in an effort to make a passage through the large herd. The goats thoroughly panicked now jumped and bleated crisscrossing each other jostling and pushing. The ones in front merely ran and leapt over the small obstacles in their way shooting off into the distance. By the time Ravi had got to his feet cupping his hand over his right eye, all the goats and the rider were gone.

He picked up his long stick, the kathi and half stumbled and ran up the road clasping one hand over his eye which hurt with an exquisite pain with every movement. “Never look up!” He had known this all his life his large turban was like a helmet and many times tree detritus had fallen but he’d been protected until today, just today. It seemed so unfair to break a rule just once and have such a severe result. Both eyes now streamed but the tears that came from the good eye were the most bitter.

“Deva mala watsawar! Aiieee…mala watsawar!” [1] He cried and after a few minutes of stumbling along, he slumped forward panting heavily and rested his hands on his knees to take a breath. He felt a firm hand on his shoulder and a young voice asked him.

“Dada, what is wrong? Are you hurt? Ill?”

Ravi stayed down not wanting to show his face but he saw a pair of skinny legs in jeans and long bony feet in good leather sandals. He slowly got up pushing his hands down on his thighs to give himself support as he rose. The young man drew in his breath as he saw the damaged eye.

“Ai, dada tumcha dola…”[2] The stranger gazed with horror at Ravi’s anguished face.

“Maza dola gela, mala kahi disat nahi!”[3] Ravi said in a thin strangled voice cupping his hand once more over the bruised and swollen eye.

If the young man had seen Ravi’s face run with tears of blood he would not have been surprised. The whole eyeball seemed a giant clot of blood and the delicate area of skin covering the socket had puffed up immediately and was turning purple as though some exotic new flower had settled on Ravi’s face.

“My goats, have you seen my goats?” Ravi asked breathlessly.

“No dada, I have not seen anything, at least not from the way I came.” The young man pointed back over his shoulder to the way they both had come. Ravi clucked his tongue.

“Dada, tell me, where do you live? You need to see a doctor.”

But Ravi wasn’t listening he was trying to stand and peer into the distance but the effort was agonizing and he collapsed onto the ground rocking and crying. “Maza dola gela, maza dola gela!”[4]

The young man moved, sat next to him and put his hand on Ravi’s shoulder.

“Come dada I will take you to the hospital.” Ravi refused saying he needed to find the goats but the young man said seriously, taking Ravi’s hand as if he was a child.

“If you don’t attend to this eye, then you will never be able to look for your goats.”

At this Ravi grew quiet and sighing heavily and with the young man’s help began to get up and together they walked to the edge of the road to hail a rickshaw and go to the nearest hospital.

The nearest hospital was in fact not a hospital at all but only a very small clinic with none of the expertise or facilities that Ravi would need and the young man felt that since the eye of the goat herder was one of only a pair with even the good one a milky colour they should make sure it’s treatment was put into good hands.

Thus they began a long walk deep into the city where the big hospital was, not far from the Pune railway station near Connaught Road. While they walked the young man kept a grip on Ravi’s elbow trying to steer him away from the multitude of obstacles that lay in their path. Not only were there rocks and stones but pieces of wood, metal and wires all twisted around in nests trying their best to trip or poke them. It was like this only in the last few years.

Before the big developments in industry, Pune had been a quiet place, beautiful shady and cool. Now it was like this, shit everywhere, wild dogs and cats disturbing everyone’s sleep at night with their fighting and howling, the bulldozed piles of half-demolished buildings heaped in giant lumps, there were so many craters and mountains of dirt and broken masonry and concrete platforms with great rusty cables poking up to the hot blue sky surrounding excavations for new towers of apartments and offices that it seemed the whole city was one massive construction site.

Wherever one walked there were unimaginable smells, rotting garbage, dog shit, human shit, goat shit, the filthy stench of the rivers that flowed through the city torpid and black gave off a sulphurous odour that spoke of the wastes that spewed into it. Then there was the rubbish, the plastics the broken pots, the boxes, containers, kitchen waste, pieces of clothing or broken sandals, wrappers and bottles in plastic all in more mounds that wandered from the pavements into the vacant land like the vomit of a madwoman. All places needed the utmost vigilance to walk through and the young man, Isaac, was in fact only walking normally now by dint of a miracle.

A few weeks before, the young man had been riding his motorbike, a Royal Enfield, in the thick of the traffic in Pune which was at most times like the coiling of several snakes in their death throes. There was no respect for the laws of the road and cars trucks motorbikes and rickshaws went where they could fit or where they could get away with not fitting. Going home after work on FC Road near Hardikar’s New Shorthand and Typewriting Institute three trucks were jostling and hooting their horns all vying to get ahead of each other, in between was a rickshaw trying to evade all three by ignoring their blasts and sticking to his trajectory. It wasn’t working.

As the young man, Isaac Joshi, approached and went on the outer side of the trucks near the gravel edge that approximated a footpath, the rickshaw driver accepted his fate and braked hard. Following this impetuous action the three trucks gave a burst of speed that meant the last truck pulled alongside the Royal Enfield thus forcing him up onto the broken pavement where the front wheel hit a lump of something hard and propelled Isaac, into the air, the Royal Enfield slewed sideways and rammed into the base of a banyan tree immediately splitting the petrol tank and bisecting the seat and tank. He hurtled over a fence loosely bound with wire, some of it barbed, into an open area where he rolled fiercely and came to rest halfway up a pile of gravel. In none of his journeys had he ever worn a helmet apart from this day when two nights ago his father had given him one saying, “This might be the best investment of your life. Wear it every time you go on the bike.” When Isaac lay there looking up at the calm impersonal blue of the sky which covered all of humanity with or without hats or helmets, he suddenly felt for the first time, very grateful for his life.

“Dada. Look out!” A short length of star picket jutting out of the ground for reasons known to no-one, was directly in the path of Ravi’s foot in its old leather chapli. It connected and Ravi yelled out in pain as a large red welt appeared on the side just under the ankle and began immediately pouring with blood. He let go of his eye and put his hand down to his foot lifting it in his hands in pain.

“Watch out!” Ravi lost his balance and half hopped and staggered falling backwards against the remains of one of the little corrugated iron street stalls that had all been mowed down by the local government in a blitz against unlicensed shops, billboards and street stalls. This was an effort to force these merchants to pay the octroi and reduce the ghastly vistas that characterized the roads of Pune. Ravi fell heavily and shouted as he hit his hip on some of an eruption of concrete that marked a corner of the broken stall.

For a moment he half lay there stunned not knowing which part of his body he should hold or pay most attention to. He felt a bubbling up inside him of rage and hysteria, was gripped by it, silenced by it until a vast roiling wave of noise hurtled forth from his mouth and if he could it would burst out in high pitched screams like one of his goats giving birth. But he clamped down his jaw and compressed his lips. Again the young man came to him.

“Oh my god, what have you done…dada dada I will help you, get up, try to get up. Come on! Look here is a rickshaw, come come…”

The rickshaw driver, like almost all rickshaw drivers of his generation, had stained teeth, reddened eyes, bare feet and sloping shoulders. He craned his head out of the cabin. Isaac waved at him to stop but as he saw the sprawling goatherd he spat his red betel juice and saliva in a jet onto the road and accelerated away. Young Isaac ran after him gesticulating with his long skinny arms.

“Come back! Come back! Bastard!” He was at a loss and turned around to look at his choices; Ravi half lying on the ground  with a hand on his badly bruised hip, his freely bleeding foot and bloodied eye confronted him, a kilometer ahead lay the house of his own family, where his brothers, father, mother grandfather and uncle were and where he could get help and maybe a good dahl, chappatis and ghosht masala for lunch. He felt a sudden bottoming out, inside him, like a floor giving way and all his power and certainty collapsed. He looked over his shoulder once at Ravi calling to him to stay put, that he would be back with help and then turned and ran forward to his own house looking back at the goatherd and repeating his call to stay and wait.

Ravi shifted himself further into the shade and peered at his torn foot with his less damaged eye squinting and turning his head. A large triangular flap of flesh had lifted up on the cuboid bone which was on the outside of his foot below the ankle. The ankle itself was okay but the foot was swelling in the area that had hit the star picket and the cut was huge and bleeding a lot from his skinny foot. His hip hurt like hell but he didn’t think it was broken and he thanked Ganesh for this but it throbbed painfully with a deep ache. When Ravi thought about the events of the morning, he was overwhelmed with feelings too difficult to understand but he knew he must get help now before the heat of the afternoon hit and laid his energy to waste. He reached out for his lathi and pulled it in close to him, then leaning on it like it was an old friend, by degrees got himself upright. He looked ahead where the young man had run off. He didn’t blame him nor feel anything but a sense of sadness that the young man was no longer there with his strong hands and soothing words. He was almost certain he knew him from somewhere, perhaps somewhere near the old houses, the sandals looked familiar somehow. He tore a piece from the bottom of his dhoti and wound it around his foot. He took another strip and made a bandage for his eye putting it across the top of his head around the back and over of his face gently tucking a little pad of material under it to lie softly over the eye itself. Hobbling forward now, each step was an effort beyond words and he concentrated on putting one foot down firmly and gingerly placing the other down, heel only, he made his way a short distance down the road. He heard the puttering of a rickshaw and moved towards the road lifting up his lathi and waving it, almost overbalancing as he did, calling out. This time the rickshaw driver pulled over and a warm voice called out.  “Ohh uncle you need a lift? What a mess! You want to go home?”

Ravi almost sobbed the words.

“I want to go to the hospital, take me to Jehangir!”

“Jehangir dada? You can afford…?”

“Take me there. Jehangir!”

The rickshaw driver,Cristianand, was a tall rangy middle aged man with glasses and a clean khaki . He hopped out of his cab and putting out his arm took Ravi into the black and yellow rickshaw saying softly. “Tell me uncle, what happened to you?”

Ravi’s mind was in a tumult of images words feelings and thoughts like the traffic in MG Road and he had to cross and make sense of it somehow.

“Many things today. Many many bad things. Today I am losing everything, everything is gone. My life is gone brother. My goats ran away my good eye is now blind I fell on my hip and cut my foot and  my goats…where could they be?”

Christianand tisked and gave a low moan of understanding.

“Ohhh no. How many goats uncle?”

“By the help of Laxmi, two hundred and seven. All gone now, now nothing not one.”

Christianand sucked in his breath.

“That is many. They could not just disappear. We will find them. Don’t worry. We can look nearby quickly before I take you to Jehangir. I think we will find them nearby they can’t have run too far.”

They drove together bumping down the road with Ravi moaning at every jolt to his body, past one of  the few clean finished well maintained buildings in Pune, the Methodist Church, and on to where a large perfectly square pool of water was situated to their right. The water was at first glance a green lawn or a gigantic pool table so closely did the weed grow over its surface. It was at this point Christianand saw three men standing in the middle of the road which curved and deviated to the right. The man in the middle was carrying something on his shoulders and as they came closer he saw clearly, it was a dead goat and as Christianand looked over the men’s shoulders, he saw a large number of goats nervously milling about in the adjacent paddock, jostling each other and setting up a huge din screaming like girls.

Christianand quickly pulled up beside the men and telling Ravi to be quiet, he stuck his head out under the awning of the cabin, and spoke to the man with the goat.

“Good morning brother. I see you have a goat…more over there.”

The man with the goat turned his head and spat a small red jet of betel leaf spittle before addressing the speaker. “What’s it to you?”

Christianand eyed him carefully, taking in his features which were broad and slightly fattened as though he had had his nose punched at least by his father, his moustache was a typical Zapata style of the badmash type but his eyes were most unusual, they tilted slightly upwards and gave him an odd serpentine look and were hazel. He forced a smile and this made the effect worse as his teeth were totally ruined by betel juice and tobacco. He also wore a huge gold signet ring on his index finger, it was the size of a small corm of garlic with a black stone set into it.

“Well we are having a wedding in a few days and my wife would be a happy woman if I came home with a fine goat like that!”

“No no..this one, no it isn’t for sale, I already sold it.”

“Oh…shame. Well, do you have any more that might be for sale? I could come back later. Maybe one of those over there?”

The man smirked. “OK I have plenty more. Come back here about eight tonight. How many do you want? If you bring your friends I can do a good price.”

It was so obvious. Christianand knew immediately where this crook had got the goats.

“OK! Great! Give me your phone number and I will call you later and tell you how many.”

The man shook his head and said, “Just come at eight, we can arrange everything easily.”

He walked on, the goat’s tongue lolling sideways out of its lips in a smile of relief to be released from the material world.

Christianand got out of the rickshaw to take a leak beside a banyan, while surreptitiously watching the man with the goat on his shoulders and his companions walk on. The companion kept turning around to see if Christianand was still there and seeing him watching, adjusted his pants upwards from his skinny arse and swaggered on.

Christianand got into his seat where in the back Ravi sat almost unaware of what was happening.

“Do your goats have a mark uncle?”

Ravi stirred and winced as his moved his head upright. “Yes, why?”

“This fellow here with the dead goat… I think we should check if it is your goat, he had some others too. What is the mark on your goats?”

“It is the mark of Laxmi. Every goat…the same, near the tail.” His voice was soft and breathy and as Christianand peered into the rear he saw Ravi in a bad way, slumping sideways on the back seat. The swelling around his eye had grown enormously so that now the eye was hidden inside its puffball of angry flesh.

Ai… Jehangir first, he thought to himself, I can come back later.

*

 

[1] God help me! Help me!(Marathi)

[2] Brother your eye…

[3] I can’t see from my eye, I can’t see I’m blind

[4] God help my eye!”

 

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2 thoughts on “Oh Laxmi! by Catherine Forsayeth”

  1. Brilliant. Thanks for the opportunity to read this. I’ve been reading Camus’ short stories lately; this is definitely on a par with his work and in a similar style. Hope you get it published, meanwhile this reader is left very keen to know what is going to happen next 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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