He took a cigar from the box. Holding it in one hand he nipped off the end with the aid of his prized cutter in the other. He placed the cutter by his side and proceeded to take out a burning ember from the fireplace. Slowly he rolled the end of the cigar near the flame ensuring that the end never made actual contact with it. The rolling continued until the entire rim was lit. Light wisps of smoke started rising from the end. He took a long draw. The satisfaction was evident from the crooked smile under the bushy moustache on his puckered face. He closed his eyes, savouring the flavour, as he relaxed on the large sofa near the fireplace.
Temperatures dropped very low in Munnar in the month of December. The mornings and nights especially, when there was no sun to offer even the feeble resistance which it did during the day, to the cold that was mercilessly biting into the flesh right unto the bones. But he never knew what it was like to be out in the cold. He was always comfortable in his long woollen overcoats. He had plenty of them gifted to him by either one of his two daughters, both of whom were abroad. Far far away from this snapping old man. They sent him gifts for Christmas or on his birthday. They called him once every month. But they never visited him. They used to, at first. But then, their children had school, college and what not. They couldn’t come even though they wished. Or that was what they said. He had his water almost boiling hot, to bathe everyday; a bottle of Grand Marnier was always by his side. Selvan ensured that. Selvan did everything for him. From shopping to cooking to watering the plants. But still he disliked him. He was jealous of Selvan; Selvan was the embodiment of youth and energy, qualities he did not possess.
Selvan was just turning eighteen when Kuppusami brought him to the mansion, saying he could no longer work due to old age. Said the boy was from the village and was efficient. And sure he was. Too efficient for him. He could find faults with Selvan only with great difficulty. But still he persisted in the act. Either the water was not of the right temperature for bathing, or his clothes weren’t properly ironed. Or there was too much salt in his cooking. Selvan was never allowed to visit his village or his family. Once or twice some people from the village did come to visit Selvan. They brought news from the village. That was how he came to know of Kuppusami’s death. Days and months passed. Once a larger number of people than usual turned up at the mansion. The wanted to meet Selvan. It was after a while that he heard loud cries. It was Selvan. Maariyammal had died. Selvan’s mother. Selvan prayed for a week’s leave. It was not to be. He was allowed only a day. Who would prepare the hot water if he went?
Selvan was now a muscular youth in his early twenties. But he was the same old man. It was on the last day of the month of December and the last day of the year that it happened. It was evening. The sun had almost disappeared. The twilight gave a heavenly look to the misty hills bearing the tea plantations. It was then that the howling began. He heard it while reading a book on his sofa. He could discern it. It was most certainly a dog. He put on his overcoat and opened the door of the mansion. He stepped outside. The cold was trying hard to find its way through the layers of expensive clothing he wore. He could feel it. Then he saw the dog. It was lying just beside the huge wrought iron gates of his mansion. And of course, it was howling. Crying rather. It seemed to be in pain.
‘Selvan! SELVAN!’ he yelled at the top of his voice. Selvan came running toward him from the back of the house.’Where did this stupid dog come from?!’ he shouted.
‘I… I don’t know sir. I didn’t see it coming.’
‘Get a stick’.
‘Just get the stick, damn you!’
Selvan brought a stick. It was stout. ‘Good’, he thought.
‘Chase the dog away.’
Selvan tried to motion with the stick to chase the dog away. It did not budge. And it continued to howl.
‘Why isn’t it moving? Prod it with the stick!’
Selvan prodded the thing with the stick. The dog turned over. ‘Sir, I think it has broken it’s leg, sir. It can’t move.’
‘Sir, it has broken it’s leg. Perhaps it was hit by a moving vehicle on the road. It can’t move.’
‘Then kill it! What are you waiting for?’
The howling continued. Now it was more distressing.
‘Give me the stick.’
He took the stick from Selvan. He started beating the dog. The howling grew worse, echoing through the misty hills. The sun was fading away. Darkness was setting in. He beat the dog on the head. Red blood spurted from its mouth, flowing onto the tarred gateway. ‘Sir, stop sir…’ Selvan’s protests fell on deaf ears. He beat it until it stopped moving. It was dead.
‘Take it and bury it outside the house. I don’t want to smell rotting flesh all night.’ The sun had disappeared. The cold was setting in. Selvan dug the damp earth just outside the iron gate. It was late in the evening when he finished the burial.
* * *
To be continued…