Stories Old and New

                                       

                                      World Heritage*

From the look of things it was going to rain today. He watched the heavy, low clouds float in from the sea, moving slowly like the ore-laden barges on Mandovi he had been seeing all his life. Sometimes clouds waited for sunrise to start their daily business. Today they must have started much earlier. Phadke had risen early as usual and started preparing for his day of work.

He watched each of his two grandsons doing their chores of fetching to the boat things their mother was preparing for their father’s fishing trip of the day, before leaving for school. Their father, his elder son, was slowly waking from his drink laden sleep to drag himself into his working day of fishing.

Phadke had seen his first-born’s sad decline over the years, how slowly he had given up true fishing. Poor boy, he was nearing forty and knew clearly what life was going to be for him and his family. He was really no more than a scavenger now, and plied his old dugout along the banks of Mandovi’s estuary, picking up small fishes, shellfishes and the lower stuff the sea sent inland – crabs, on a lucky day. His wife still had hopes though. She worked hard as an assistant in a big city shop in Panaji proper, so that her two sons finished school at least.

Phadke sighed. He understood his daughter inlaw. She reminded him of his father, the last true fisherman in the family. He had forbidden Phadke from fishing, ever, except for fun. Instead he was to finish school and become a gentleman. Phadke had obeyed his father. Today, he was past 60 and toothless. He had been a tourist guide for Old Goa monuments all his life. He too had pushed his two sons to go through school. But there were no real jobs afterwards, except for the beach market. The elder one had tried but in the end repaired the old boat after marriage, and gone in for fishing. The younger one was away in Mumbai, a motorbike courier, still unmarried.         

He watched the clouds and his grandsons preparing for going to school. In his old days he had taken the boat all the way to old Goa sometimes, for a lark with his wife. She will be seeing to readying his small lunchbox for the day. He will take the bus, as usual. Today was supposed to be an important day, although he had seen many such important days come and go in his sixty years and they had not made any real difference. Will the South African come at all? Does the power of the Saint still work? There was smell of rain in the air. Everything felt unsettled, raw.

*

                   His doubts had started long back, after the Basilica was declared a World Heritage Site. Suddenly more and more foreigners started visiting Bom Jesus and other monuments around it, in big shining cars and huge air-conditioned buses. Within a week of the declaration, in a thunderstorm a lightning bolt had struck and burnt down an old building behind the main church, and newspapers had become full of wild supernatural stories and omens.

Of course it was nonsense. Phadke and his wife were thinking of a second child then. His income was good. He was modest looking but spoke English well. And he read some history books borrowed from his neighbourhood tea shop which also ran a lending library, to make up true stories about St. Francis convincingly. He believed in the Saint too. The new visitors were white and rich. Like Phadke everyone thought their earnings will jump and future will be good. It was all the Saint’s doing of course.

But the opposite happened. The new bunch of foreigners came with their own tour guides, very often from Bombay itself. These guides traveled with them in their buses, and stayed in same hotels. And they were also smarter, younger, and some said … sexier! The local guides’ income actually went down, not up. People waited for a year or two for the Saint to notice this. His wife came and prayed to the Saint. But the reversal slowly became permanent. The old buildings were now regularly cleaned, the lawns cared for by malis, the streets swept and watered for the big vehicles parked there all day in the season. But the local guides’ became poorer. It took Phadke many years to realise that secretly, deep inside his heart he had started despising the Saint. Even thinking that his body in the casket was a fake, not a miracle.

He had kept these thought to himself. In his old age his mind had become wilder though. Sometimes he thought there was no god even, let alone the Saint. The big loan he had taken from the Basilica’s manager Falcao to educate his younger son still remained unpaid, after so many years. Sometimes at night, lying beside his tired and snoring wife, unable to sleep, he thought that perhaps he should have stuck to fishing and not tried to ape the ways of the English educated. Perhaps his father’s love of education was wrong. World Heritage had put a curse. His life had dwindled away, his family …

And suddenly yesterday the old South African couple have an act of faith with him! Their forefathers were Indians actually. They had been poor and had gone there a century ago. Phadke had had his act of faith with the Saint too. And see how his life had turned out! Falcao had seen him with the South Africans. Nothing escaped him.

Phadke sighed, put on his shoes, went to the kitchen to collect his lunchbox. His toes and heels were now permanently cracked and dry. His body could no longer push moisture out to them. I am drying up like a dying tree, he thought, and collected his pens, cards and the handbag. The boys had left for school. The sky was darker. Rain, any time.

*

                  He had said his name was Harry Paul Naraine and had spelt it out to Phadke when he had politely raised his eyebrows at the mention of the strange name. It was Phadke who had approached the rich looking Indian couple. A rich seth from Bangalore, or even Delhi perhaps. Phadke had been drawn by the way the man, Naraine, was taking photographs with his expensive camera hanging from his fat neck. Unlike others he was taking pains, judging angles laboriously, adjusting his position for focus, trying to get the best shots. His wife in a big floppy hat smiled a lot at her husband’s enthusiasm. Might be interesting to talk to as well, Phadke had thought, and they looked obviously rich too. He had made his usual initial pitch, with polite deference.

“Good morning Sir. Good morning Madam. You are at this moment standing outside the Basilica of Bom Jesus. It is a living church and UNESCO has declared it as a site for World Heritage. It houses the living body of St. Francis Xavier. Do you wish to be shown all its splendours in detail? I am an authorised guide for 40 years….”

“How much will it cost?” Naraine had asked bluntly with a grin of full white teeth. His wife had thrown him a shocked, reproachful look.  “No, it is best to clear it up in the beginning. No?” He had looked at Phadke with a challenge, and also humour.

“Yes, sir,” Phadke had replied meekly. “It will be 100 rupees.”

“It is okay,” Mrs. Naraine had said smiling.

“So!” said the man. “Tell us. The body is a mummy, of course. You know, stuffed with chemicals.”

Mrs. Nariane had darted her scandalized eyes around to see if anyone had heard this shocking thing. There were dozens of people milling around, many white women too.

Phadke had smiled widely, while nodding to indicate that such heretic scepticism is natural and healthy.

“I assure you, sir. It has been proven.” Phadke had said calmly.

“Okay, okay,” the man had said suddenly dropped his brash pose easily. “You say your piece, then.”

So it had started.

Phadke had started the story of Saint Francis Xavier. How from childhood itself he was attracted towards God. How he excelled in Bible study and was admired by his teachers for his frugality and austerities which were absent in common boys of his age. How as a youth he became a friend and member of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s Society of Jesus.

“You know the Society of Jesus, Sir? It runs many of the best convent schools, even in India ….”

“Ya, I know Loyola,” said Naraine laughingly.   “The Inquisition chap.”

“Inquisition, Sir?” Phadke had asked.

“You know, religious police. Tortured and killed people for being insufficiently Christian. Made them burn themselves to prove their faith. Tried to muzzle Galileo too. You have heard of Galileo?”

“I have heard of Galileo the scientist, sir.”

“Well, Loyola’s boys threatened Galileo. Told him his science of solar system was unchristian! Well, well, well. Your Saint Xavier was his pal, eh?”

“Sir, I am just a simple tourist guide. You are a learned man. I don’t know about science.”

“He is a scientist,” Mrs. Naraine said proudly. “Now working for a UNESCO project.”

“Okay, okay,” Naraine said good humouredly. “Go on with your spiel.”

And so it had gone.

Phadke had resumed his story. How after the Portuguese had settled in Goa, Saint Francis Xavier was sent here to spread Christian religion in India. And also beyond India. St. Xavier was very pious and powerful. How his blessings brought God’s grace to everyone. How under his influence many people became Christian, and many beautiful churches were built. How he traveled overseas to spread the word of god. He went to China too.

“China, eh?” asked Naraine, “When was all this?”

“Around 1550 AD, Sir.” Phadke replied.

“Really?” Naraine was surprised. “Babur had come to India by then?”

“And gone too,Sir.” Phadke replied. “Akbar was on Delhi’s throne.”

“Interesting,” said Naraine, now hooked. “Please go on. The China rush had started that far back. Imagine!”

“We are from Cape Town, you know,” Mrs. Naraine said, as if it explained something. “After our daughter’s marriage, we travel quite a lot.”

“Let him tell his story, Mala,” Naraine told her gently.

Phadke had continued his story again. But each time he would bring it round to point out some of the Saint’s holiness and Naraine would puncture the story with a sharp comment. This happened many times. Phadke was happy. If Naraine felt good from being cocky and smart, he might tip him better. And he appeared to be a learned man too, not offensive. Many learned men were a bit arrogant, Phadke knew. Besides, the man was right. Phadke felt exactly the same way about the bloody Saint.

He came to the climax of the story. How Saint Xavier suddenly died of illness at Malacca, while on his way by ship to China. How his body was quickly buried by ignorant crew of the ship. It was in 1552. Next year when the king heard of St. Xavier’s death and rough burial he was furious. He wanted to bring the holy Saint’s body back to Goa, and so he ordered. How then there was the first miracle. When his body was exhumed from the hasty grave, it was found not decayed, but fresh and fragrant as if still living in some miraculous way. How whoever touched the body, found all his wishes granted by God. Till today,Sir. The king had brought back his body and placed it in the church of Bom Jesus.

The Naraines’ had listened to this part attentively, as Phadke had always seen everyone else do too. He was a little proud of his story telling.

“You believe all this?” Naraine had asked him quietly. “I mean you? Personally? You are what, a Hindu?”

“Yes, Sir,” Phadke now quickly clinched the drama expertly. “I am a Hindu. And I believe in St. Xavier. Personally.”

There was a silence. The Naraines’ were looking at the ground.

“You have tested the Saint?” Mrs. Naraine asked in a small voice.

“Yes, Madam, I have,” Phadke replied softly. “Long ago.” It was not quite a lie.

“Tell me,” she looked at him.

“My wife was pregnant with our second child. She had jaundice, and complications. Doctors said an operation was needed. Otherwise one of them will die.” Phadke paused, smiled sadly. “We prayed to the Saint. Touched his casket. We had no money for the operation.”

“And?” Naraine asked.

“The Saint listened to us. My wife is today an old woman, at home. The boy is working in Mumbai.”

There was more silence. Suddenly they were aware of other people around.

“Shall we go inside now, Sir?” Phadke had asked.

Inside, the Naraines’ were astounded by the high ceiling of the principal nave rising up on the gilded columns overlaid with murals and by the splendid colours of the frescos and stained glass artwork. The strong sunlight lit up the colours of mural artwork and the patterned glass windows of the sides. From outside nobody expects this hugeness and the colour and dazzling splendour. The quietened Naraines’ gaped open-mouthed, as expected. The whole damn thing was splendid, no question.

Phadke spoke with subdued pride.

“You can see, on the very top, Jesus Christ himself, blessing the whole world with his outstretched arms. Do you see?”

There was a group of foreigners, probably Italians or Spanish, being chaperoned by a smart long-haired Indian girl of tight physique. She was speaking very loudly. The group was photographing her along with the church.

“And below Him, you can see Saint Ignatius Loyola,” said Phadke. “With the beard.”

Naraines’ strained to see, overwhelmed by the bewildering detail. Yes, they could see a large figure with black beard.

“And this is the pulpit. From here the pastor delivers his sermon. Even today.”

Some people were sitting down on the benches meant for the worshippers, not only the elderly.

“And these are the alcoves for other saints, and holy matrons.” Phadke went on with practiced ease, piling on the numbing effect, delaying the punch. He saw it in their eyes that they were ready for it.

“You want to see Saint Francis Xavier?” he had asked. The Naraines’ nodded.

“Come this way,” he turned them towards the next wing, which was mainly wood and glass and probably silver, not gilded. Many people were crowding around there, uncertain and hushed. The Naraines’ couldn’t see the Saint anywhere. They looked at Phadke, as he knew they would. He smiled.

“Come here,” he said, climbing two wooden steps. “On this spot!”

When they did, Phadke pointed to an overdecorated silver-and-glass coffin like box, much higher than everyone’s eye level. “See. You can see side of his face.”

And they saw. Stood there for quite some time, bewildered. Phadke knew they were secretly disappointed at the small size of the coffin and of the Saint lying inside. He too had been when he had first seen it. He could see Naraine trying to estimate the Saint’s height.

The Naraines’ stood on the upper step too long. Other people were waiting for their turn. Phadke had requested them to please climb down, smiling understandingly.

“Can we touch the casket?” Mrs. Naraine had whispered.

“Not allowed, Madam,” Phadke shook his head sadly.

“But,…”

“Please come with me.” Phadke had ushered them out kindly but firmly.

Suddenly it was over.

They were outside in the open.

“But, you said …,” Mrs. Naraine started again, but Phadke cut her off, nodding in a kindly way, and herded them away from the crowded doorway towards the hedges of green parkland around the Basilica.

“You see, Madam,” he had started in a hushed voice. “If everybody was allowed to touch the casket freely, ignorant hands might spoil it, or even break it …”

“But, you said …,” she said.

“Yes, madam, yes,” Phadke said soothingly. “For the specially devout pilgrims the church authorities allow, on special occasions, to touch the casket with cloths and papers printed with religious pictures and psalms and prayers. These are stored aside, for future use of the visiting pilgrims wanting to get blessings.”

“Can we get one?” she asked.

“I can try to get one from the authorities.” He looked at Naraine. “Each is 500 rupees.”

Naraine nodded, looking at him, not saying anything.

Phadke had left them standing there, and went back inside the church. He had these blessed pictures inside his bag, and he had actually touched the whole bunch with the Saint’s casket, out of superstition. He stayed inside for quite some time. Let them stew a bit. No harm. When he had returned he saw them standing at the same spot deep in animated discussion, almost like a fight. Phadke stood where he was, far away, watching. The woman was speaking loudly, wiping tears from her face. The man was shouting, gesticulating to the skies, shrugging and nodding. They saw him standing there, waiting for them. Naraine held up his palm to Phadke, asking him to wait and took his wife a bit further away, speaking softly and earnestly to her bowed head.

Phadke stood where he was watching them slowly reach some decision. This was too much, quite an unexpected reaction, in Phadke’s experience. But, then, a lot of stuff was going around in this world. He had shrugged, and waited.

A plane passed overhead, probably searching for an airport.

At last Naraine had beckoned him over with a finger. Phadke reached them, keeping his eyes neutral and averted, and had handed over a picture of the main gilded panel wall of the Basilica after touching his closed eyelids with it. The woman had quickly put it in her handbag without looking at it.

“Okay, Guido man,” Naraine tried to speak jauntily but failed. “We will try out your Saint today. What do you say?”

Phadke had stopped himself from shrugging, and said nothing.

“We have tried Jesus Christ at Bethlehem, and Avalokiteshvara at Beijing already,” went on Naraine. “We will give Loyola’s chum a try too!” He handed over 1000 rupees to Phadke.

“You will be our witness,” Naraine had said loudly. “You will be here tomorrow?”

Phadke had bowed his head. “As always.”

“Okay, then,” said Naraine trying to reconnect with his earlier swagger. “Be here to see if your Saint delivers.  We will reward you.”

“I will be here,” Phadke had said meekly. “And I do not deserve any reward, Sir.”

“Well, we will see, won’t we?”

They had quickly walked away to their waiting big car with dark windows like sunglasses.

*

                That was yesterday. All day later Phadke had wondered what was it that Naraines’ had wanted from the Saint.

The rain which had been threatening since morning was now coming down in full force. In his reverie since morning about yesterday Phadke had forgotten to pick up his umbrella, and he had got fully wet, even before his bus came. Now the bus was slowly making its way, and sitting inside with wet clothes, watching rain water cascading down the window glass of the rattling bus Phadke was cursing himself. Why had he come today? In this weather there will be no tourists, no income. Did he seriously think that the Saint would have granted Naraines’ prayer overnight? And they would be rushing to Phadke in profuse gratitude and make him rich for the rest of his life? This is greed, he told himself. An old man’s greed.

There were very few people in the bus and they all knew each other for a long time, so there was very little to talk about. And in this weather! Phadke was trying to remember something his neighbour had once told him, about Inquisition in Goa. How the Portuguese priests burnt Indians for no real reason, just to spread their power of terror. The neighbour used to work in a newspaper before starting his magazine stall. Phadke felt his toes squelching wetly inside his shoes. He had already got 1000 rupees yesterday. It was enough really. And even if in a real miracle the Saint had granted Naraines’ prayer, they would have forgotten about a thin, old tourist guide in shabby clothes. They would be rejoicing in their swanky hotel, throwing a feast probably, for all staff too.

Phadke rubbed his head with a half-dry handkerchief. Catching a cold would not do. The bus had nearly finished the trip, and it entered the Old Goa through the ruins of ancient royal gateway.

The bus dropped him at the main crossing of the church complex. It was raining hard. Phadke ran to the nearest building, holding his bag over his head. Thwarted by rain under the grey sky many people were standing there, miserable and wet.

Then Phadke learnt that taxis all over Goa had declared a strike today. No taxi will run anywhere in Goa today. That took care of Naraines’ rushing to reward Phadke! He watched the skies bitterly. Streaks of lightning were flickering in the roiling dark clouds.

Why am I standing here soaked and wet to the core? Phadke asked himself in exasperation. Just because others are? The rain does not look like stopping soon. Phadke started walking in the rain.

In the side wing of the Basilica, behind the office of the manager, was a spare storeroom. Many years back the father of the present manager, Falcao Senior, had allowed junior staff and old regulars like Phadke to use the room. It had an electric heater, to dry wet clothes and to heat one’s lunch, also a fan, and the floor to use for a short lie down. After becoming the manager, the son had continued his father’s practice but he was surly and offensive.

Phadke went straight to the storeroom and took off his shirt and pants for drying over the heater. He unlaced his shoes and also hung the socks over the heater to dry. One or two people came into the room and sat drying their clothes too. The weather had affected everyone. Phadke sat for about an hour and, reasonably dry, put on his clothes to go and stand in his usual place just inside the entrance. Another guide who was a regular had not come, or not yet. There was no sign of any visitor of course.

Phadke stood looking out emptily. It was dark as if the sun had already set. The park and compound of the church under the dripping trees was under ankle deep water. There was no one about in sight. Some hundred years back, before the churches and Saints, before the Portuguese, this place would have been silent and empty like this, only forests and rain and thunder. Long empty thoughts. Phadke sat down on his haunches to see the long day pass. He dozed off.

Far away along the long curving entry road, hidden intermittently by the trees there was a dark shape moving, making wet, spluttering sounds. Swerving around drunkenly on the waterlogged road, it slowly made its way towards the main square of the church complex. It was a rickety autorickshaw, with side flaps pulled down to keep out rain, its engine about to be drowned any time by the water in which it was moving. It made its way determinedly, against elements, against all odds. Some mad chap, or a young driver pushing his rented vehicle for money, Phadke thought.

Half awake, Phadke watched the crazed wet autorickshaw slowly judder its way forward under the driving rain. It turned into the square of the Basilica and moved towards the main building like a strange, mad monster released from the depth of the sea. It slowly came towards the main entrance and stopped right in front of Phadke. One side flap slick with rain flew open and a bald, wet, fat man stepped out. It was Naraine. Astounded, Phadke stood up.

Unable to see well in the rain and without his glasses Naraine peered around, walking in ankle deep water, his wet clothes sticking to his body.

Phadke took a step forward. “Sir, you here?”

“Ah, Guido man!” Naraine saw him and rushed, wading in the water, and smothered Phadke in a huge, wet embrace. Through his dislodged spectacles Phadke saw Mrs. Naraine stepping out of the other side flap into the water equally wet and disheveled and without make up.

“You Saint has heard us,” she came up and panted. “The only one in this world who has!”

“Take us to him, Guido man!” Naraine was pushing Phadke, still in his big embrace.

Like in a dream, dumbfounded, Phadke somehow ushered the wet and incoherent Naraines’ towards the side nave where the body of the Saint was. Naraines’ dropped to the ground at the carved railing around the alcove, bowed their heads upon it, and sobbed. On hearing the noise one or two staff came to see. Also the young Falcao.

Naraine opened his eyes and looked up, saw Falcao standing near him.

“The Saint has heard us,” he told Falcao in a shocked voice.

“Yes, yes,” Falcao smiled and nodded, and walked away politely.

Phadke was not able to take in what was happening. The saint heard the Naraines` prayer?

The Naraines’ stood up at the altar, looking around in a daze, tears streaming down their faces. They saw Phadke standing nearby and came to him. The woman was weeping again, and the man hugged her again. They were walking out towards the entrance moving in an awkward embrace, the man and the woman talking simultaneously in snatches and weeping. Phadke could not understand what they were saying, only some bits. The only Saint in the world! This damned taxi strike today! Our daughter called last night. After so many years! Not against her marriage. The man was a scoundrel. In America, yes. After her money. She stopped speaking to us. What can you know about a mother’s heart? So many years. Prayed to your Saint last night. For a miracle. Called us this morning, collect. Rain. Guido man! We have waited for this so many years. Miracle, miracle. Hope, Guido man! Evening flight. You, only you. Words like that.

They were getting back into the autorickshaw.

Naraine stopped, came back to a stunned Phadke standing in the pouring rain.

“Oh,” Naraine shoved something into Phadke’s shirt pocket. “For you, Guido man. Bless you.”

The autorickshaw which was kept on all this time, slowly came to life, and moved away down the road and away into the trees. The silence of rain returned.

In a daze, Phadke walked to the toilet and washed his hair and face. He pulled out the bundle from his shirt pocket. A wad of money. Not rupees. Dollars! Phadke saw 100 dollar notes, many of them, and quickly pushed them into his pant pocket. He walked back and sat down on his haunches in the original place near the entrance. The rain was unchanged. Except for the new pressure of folded dollars inside his pant pocket, he might have just dreamt all this.

The Saint had listened to the Naraines’. On first shot! While Phadke had been praying for decades, growing old and hopes fading. What kind of a Saint is that, one who listens to the rich? Phadke shifted his sitting position. The bundle of dollars was awkward and hurting his thigh. Wait a minute! The Saint had not only listened to the Naraines’ but also to him. God knows how many dollars were there in the bundle. Fifty? Hundred? 100 times 100 dollars made ten thousand dollars! How many rupees to a dollar now? It will come to lakhs. Phadke was rich at last.

He was filled with remorse at having doubted and misjudged the Saint, of even laughing at his shrinking body. Who can know the ways of the Saints? They were not shopkeepers, doling out blessings one by one. They fulfilled many at one stroke!

Phadke saw that the rain was probably slackening and the clouds were getting slightly thinner. Now probably it will be possible to pay the bribe for getting the younger one a steady job, to get him married off. Cataracts of his wife`s eyes can now be got operated from a good clinic. Maybe get the boat repaired too, buy a new motor. The Saint had after so many years upturned the fate of Phadke’s family. Phadke wanted to rush out into the rain, catch a bus and go home, and collect his lunch box tomorrow. Or never come back to collect the damn lunchbox at all!

He was being silly. Although there was still nobody around, Phadke cast his eyes around him. He should behave as if nothing had happened. Did anybody see Naraine give him money? Nobody should get even a hint of it.

Just then one of the cleaning staff came with a mop, and cleaned up the wet left by the Naraines’ near the Saint’s altar.

“Your NRIs have gone?” he asked Phadke cheerfully.

“Long back,” said Phadke dully. “They were South Africans”, he added.

The man nodded and went away.

While pretending to, Phadke actually dozed off again. He woke up when someone was tapping his shoulder. He jumped up. It was the other guide. The rain was almost gone and the sun was about to breakthrough the clouds.

“Did anyone come today,” his friend asked. Phadke shook his head.

“Let us go and eat our lunch, at least.”

They went to the storeroom at the back, heated and ate their lunch and washed the box. Tea was made. The staff sat around dully chatting. Phadke made an excuse that he was probably feverish from getting wet in the morning, and lay down for a nap. But he could not quite drop off, but lay with his eyes shut listening to the dull gossip, till one by one everyone went off to their tasks of the day. The day was passing slowly. It was still many hours for the evening. It will be good if there were some visitors to guide around. Phadke resisted the thought of counting the dollars. Instead, he got up, washed his face, and went to his normal station near the entrance, and sat with the other guide. The sky was getting dark again.

“Today will be a blank day,” the other guide said and after looking around spat. Phadke nodded. The rain was still holding off. Some buses and vans had started moving around the main road-crossing beyond the church square. The world was big, Phadke thought, and so many things happened in it.

The day wore on. No visitors came. No taxis, no cars or buses. The sky was becoming steadily darker as the evening approached. To avoid talking Phadke had been pretending to doze, sitting with his fellow guide near the entrance. The patter of the falling rain had made him actually doze off. Phadke woke to see his friend, ready to leave with his lunch box and bag.

“No point. I am going. What about you?”

“I will wait for the last bus, as usual,” said Phadke.

“Rain is getting heavier,” his friend said and went away.

Phadke looked at the sky. Yes, the rain was getting heavier. Lightning had started again. Another hour and I will leave, Phadke thought. He had not wanted to travel with his friend in the bus. Had not wanted any talk. Deep thunder boomed in the heavens.

It was nearing 6 and it was getting dark. Slowly Phadke went to the storeroom. Nearly everyone had left. Falcao was arranging some packets of naphthalene balls on the shelves. Phadke put his lunch box in the bag, washed his face at the tap, combed his hair.

“Did your South African give you a tip?” Falcao asked still busy with the packets.

“Why, no.” Phadke stopped combing and turned to go.

“Wait,” said Falcao and came up to him. “What is that in your pocket?”

Phadke started walking out hurriedly. But Falcao pinned Phadke  against the wall easily with one muscular hand, and with the other pulled out the bundle of dollars. Phadke was unable even to free himself from the pressure of Falcao’s strong arm, let alone fight for the dollars. He was just skin and bones really.

“My, my, dollars, eh? Good! This will repay your loan, perhaps finally.”

Falcao pushed Phadke out of the door.

Tears had sprung in Phadke’s eyes, from shock and humiliation.

“Now go! Don’t worry. I will calculate. If there is anything left over, you will get it.”

Numb, Phadke trudged through the water towards the road- crossing. Thunder was crashing down nearby. There were no thoughts in his head. Only disgust and humiliation. At himself. Just some dollars, and he had suddenly found faith in the old Saint! He now remembered what his newspaper friend had told him years back. It was this Saint Xavier who had started that fire punishment in Goa. What was it called? Investigation? Inquisition? People were burnt to ashes. To please the Saint, and probably god.

Phadke was not aware how he had reached his bus stop. He stood on the pavement, abject, furious, getting wet, but uncaring. There was a big crash of thunder and a huge gleaming bolt of lightning hit somewhere very near, its huge flash of white light had jolted Phadke out of his reverie. There was a strange taste in his mouth, metallic like torch batteries, or copper coins. His bus had arrived and the conductor was calling him.                       

“Anna, come inside fast,” said the conductor. “You will catch a cold and die.”

Phadke stumbled in and the nearly empty bus started off for Panaji.

That bolt of lightning should have hit me, Phadke thought bitterly. I would have been just ashes, in a second. Probably the Saint would have been happy. The window was open and rain was streaming in. Phadke spat at the passing world, and at the rain and lightning.

Two seats back some schoolgirls saw this.

“Look at him spitting,” one said in English. “No wonder foreigners hate coming to India.”

Phadke heard it but he did not respond. He kept looking out of the open window, at the fire-bolts of lightning hitting the earth in far off places.

* 2012

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About ctaposh

Cartoonist, poet, social activist, development banker, documentary filmmaker, reader of books and realities, ponderer of questions milling around.
This entry was posted in clues, Dialectics, Short Stories, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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