(Fiction. 1,141 words)
Purnima noticed the dog the first time from her kitchen window. It was sitting near the concrete seat by the pond, wet all over. It seemed to be looking straight at her.
The morning passed in chores. She continued to see him through the day, whenever she peered outside. It was sitting in the same place, staring back at her every time she chanced to sweep her gaze past it.
In the afternoon she went down to the gate and called.
The dog walked to her, ears rolled back and swank in an exaggerated display of servitude.
“Stay,” she said, intending to bring it some milk. As she turned to go upstairs, the dog began to climb the steps with her.
Purnima would have instantly chased it away save for the peculiar expression she had caught in its eyes, a strangely familiar mien. Who would find her out at this hour if she allowed him the license to trespass?
The dog paused at the kitchen door. Purnima placed a bowl of milk before it but it didn’t even bother to sniff. Suddenly the dog ran into her bedroom. Purnima strode after him. He went straight to her alna* and brought down the place mat. Carrying it in his mouth he returned to the kitchen door. Then, unfolding the mat to the best of his abilities with his canine paws, the dog stood on it and looked expectantly at Purnima, tail wagging vigorously.
It was the very spot Brajalal sat for his meals on that mat.
For a second Purnima stood perplexed. Hastening to the kitchen, she laid out her spartan widow’s meal. It was Thursday. Brajalal was used to eating vegetarian on Thursdays.
The dog ate everything on the plate, licked it clean, except for the fried bits of bitter korola. Brajalal hated bitter gourd.
Emotions played havoc in her heart as she saw the dog eat. At the end of his meal when the dog got up and jumped on to her bed it was the last proof she needed. Purnima sobbed. Her sobs turned to howls. She rolled on the floor beside the arraignments of the concluded meal and beat her breasts.
Tepi, the thirteen year old house maid who was returning from her bath and gossip by the roadside tube-well with a gamchha tied in a bun over her head rushed to her mistress’s side. For a moment she couldn’t grasp what was happening.
Then she detected the dog on the bed.
With a screech and leap she attempted to chase it off.
“Don’t you dare,” Purnima roared. “That’s your dada-babu, your master. Can’t you even recognize your benefactor, you ungrateful wench.”
Purnima shoo-ed Tepi away and resumed wailing, pressing her head to the dog’s feet.
“Why are you crying?” asked Tepi, feeling frightfully teary eyed herself.
“In happiness, monkey face, in happiness.”
In the evening Purnima took out her gold encased iron bangles from the armoire and the pair of new corals she had bought just before her unexpected loss. Drawing a mark of vermilion in the parting of her hair, she did away with all signs of widowhood.
The dog seemed to approve, wagging his tail from Brajalal’s armchair. Brajalal had always encouraged Purnima’s indulgence in elaborate toiletry.
Tepi, orphaned in infancy with no recollection of her birth parents, had looked upon the couple as her guardians since cognizance. With Brajalal’s death and Purnima’s sudden insanity she didn’t know what to do. The next morning on her way to the market – Purnima had commissioned the finest prawns to prepare Brajalal’s favourite malai curry – Tepi slipped to Madan Pal’s house. Madan had been given a start in life by Brajalal whom he looked up to like an elder brother, worshipping him as a demigod.
Madan entered as Purnima was feeding Brajalal rajbhogs with her own hand. Tepi’s fear was not founded he realized.
“But he is your brother, thakur-po.” Purnima maintained. “He goes to bathe in the pond sharp at ten. That’s where I found him yesterday, on the ghat. He went again today, much though I begged him not to.”
Purnima wiped away a tear. Brajalal bathed in the pond at ten every morning and it was there that he had died of drowning two months ago.
“He always sits on his asan to eat and doesn’t go to sleep unless his favourite pillow is given to him. He hates milk and bitter gourd and will not touch moong dal. Besides,” she hid a smile of abashment. “He was dark and pot-bellied, too.”
Madan glanced askance at the canine specimen, his black coat glistening in the morning light. He had acquired a fair rotundity in Purnima’s care.
The dog looked back at him patronisingly.
“This is your dada,” Purnima insisted. ‘Telegram the children to come at once thakur-po. Tell them: ‘Father is alive. Come soon.’”
Making a speedy departure from Brajalal’s residence, Madan Pal ran down to the Post and Telegraph Office near the rail station and sent out five telegrams, changing the message slightly:
‘Mother unwell. Come soon.’
The children, Paroma, Nilima, Suranjan and Tapan, all married and settled in different parts of the district, arrived as soon as they could to witness this unique dishevelment in the household.
They didn’t know what to make of it.
“Didi would be able to manage,” said Paroma.
Didi Suroma, Brajalal and Purnima’s eldest, lived in Agra. A frantic trunk call was made to her but she was already on her way to Paddaputuli.
Four baffled siblings confused her efforts to comprehend the situation. Suroma understood sufficiently before tears began to roll down her cheeks.
“Baba, where are you? Look at what ma is doing. She has gone mad,” she yammered.
Purnima came hurrying out of her bedroom.
“Quiet, your baba is trying to sleep in the next room,” she scolded.
The long journey and mystifying telegram had axed Suroma’s nerves already, her mother’s evident craziness was taking things too far. She had come prepared to tackle a multitude of eventualities, a canine incarnate of her departed patriarch not one of them.
Unable to restrain herself any longer, Suroma fainted.
It was early evening when she recovered. The sky was purple outside. She woke up alone in bed, God knows where the others were. No one had switched on the lights in the room. She got off in the dark and stealthily tiptoeing to the door, peeped into her parent’s bedroom.
Purnima was sitting on the four-poster with her collection of betel leaves, areca nuts, nutcracker, lime and an assortment of spices, stuffing up cones of fresh green paan-s. Beside her, ears curled back and an expression of profound contentment on his face, the dog was munching on a mouthful of spice stuffed paan, red betel juice dripping from the corner of its jaw.
Suroma lost consciousness a second time.