DOG (Contd.)

Years passed. He discovered Selvan’s drinking habit, when he noticed that his stock of liquor was diminishing a bit too rapidly. Sometimes he even thought he saw Selvan taking bottles out with him. He doubted Selvan was drinking with his friends in town. But he said nothing about it. He couldn’t dare to lose Selvan at this time of his life. Besides, he had more than enough money to satiate both Selvan’s and his friends’ drinking habit. He was in his early eighties now, and Selvan in his late twenties. His eyesight was dim, and his hearing capabilities were no doubt deteriorating. He seldom heard any sound that was more than two meters away.

It was that time of the year again. The cold seemed to grow more bitter with every passing year. His woollen overcoats weren’t as effective as before to counter the new found strength of the cold. The whisky was good however, and that was his only comfort in the harsh winter. That evening Selvan said he was going to town to buy some things. He agreed. He didn’t know what all things were needed. And he wasn’t sure if Selvan was in fact going out to “buy things” as he had said, or to entertain his “friends”. Only Selvan knew. And he didn’t care. After all, Selvan was running the house now. But he still made sure that he complained, if the water wasn’t of the right temperature. That evening was unusually cold. The cold was clenching its fists around his frail bones. He needed a drink. ‘Selvan!’ he called out. It was then that he remembered Selvan had gone out. He was exasperated. He decided to get the drink himself. He started descending the steps slowly.

It happened suddenly. He lost his balance. He was surprised that there was no step where he had put his foot. Before he could think more, he was rolling down the staircase. Rolling and rolling. It never seemed to end. Until it finally did. He lay sprawled on the floor. He was numb. He tried to move. His leg hurt. It hurt like it was going to be detached from his old body. He opened his mouth. He tried to call out for help. He couldn’t. No sound came out of his mouth; only warm air, which condensed in the cold surroundings, forming a mist. He wished he could spell what he wanted to say, in it. Perhaps someone would see, then. There he was, lying on the floor with a broken leg and no one to help him. Where the hell did Selvan disappear? He felt like he was falling. Falling deep into a dark black hole. He lost himself.

Suddenly he was brought to himself by a throbbing pain in his head. Something had hit him. He groaned. He moved his hand to his forehead. It was wet. He hoped it was sweat. It was not. He looked at his hand. ‘No!’ he thought. But it was. Blood. As red as ever. He didn’t know who or what had hit him. He couldn’t think. He suddenly felt like everything was going to end. He had no one to think about. His wife who died long ago? No. His two daughters? No. Selvan? Yes. Where was Selvan? Why had he forsaken him? Didn’t he give him all that he needed? He tried to call out. ‘Selvan!’ He thought he heard a faint laugh. The exertion was too much for him. In fact, it took his whole life breath away.

* * *

It was the day after the New Year. The Inspector was in his bed at home, pulling the warm blanket over his head, and prolonging the act of waking up. He made a quick glance at his watch. Its hands glowed in the pseudo-darkness under the blanket. He could make out it was almost 6 am. He stuck his head out of the blanket and looked out of the window. Mist covered the hills.  They looked beautiful. As always. He liked this place. It didn’t have the frenetic pace of the city. Life was relaxing. And work as well. He had another look at his watch and then at his cosy bed. ‘There’s time’, he thought and closed his eyes under the blanket, slowly drifting into his dreams again. He heard someone calling him. Someone was shaking him, telling him to wake up. He opened his eyes. It was the constable who was supposed to be on night duty. And it was not a dream. ‘What is it? Why are you here?’ he asked. ‘Sir, a newspaper boy came to the station in the morning. He has something to tell you.’

‘Where is he’? the Inspector asked.

‘He’s standing outside sir.’

‘Wait. I’m coming in a few minutes.’

* * *

Soon the two men and the boy were in the jeep, driving to the sprawling mansion on the top of a hill. He stopped in front of the gate. The boy led him inside the house. There was the man, lying sprawled on the floor. He noticed there was a pool of blood around the man’s head that had dried up.

‘Sir, I came to check if there was anyone here, when I saw that yesterday’s newspaper was still lying by the gate’, the boy said.

‘Good. Did you notice anything unusual?’

‘What could be more unusual than this’, the boy thought. ‘Well, sir, the door wasn’t locked. I didn’t notice anything else. I cycled to the station straight away on seeing the body’, he said.

‘Constable, search all the rooms. Tell me if you see anything unusual.’

It was then that the inspector saw the stick. It was lying near the old man. It had blood on it. He picked it up and slowly rolled it in his hands. Then something caught his eye. A small grey, almost white, hair. It was stuck in the dried blood. It could only belong to the old man. ‘He was murdered.’ ‘What sir?’, the boy asked. ‘The old man was murdered.’ The constable returned. ‘Sir, all the safes and cupboards are open. I think there was a robbery here.’

‘Was the old man living alone?’, the Inspector turned to the boy.

‘I do not know sir, I am new in this job. In fact, I started delivering newspapers only yesterday. Sankaramama might now. He used to deliver newspapers in this area earlier. I can take you to him.’

‘Hmmm…’ He turned to the constable. ‘You stand guard here. I’m going with the boy. We may need more men.’

The Inspector put his arm around the boy.’Come, let’s go meet your Sankaramama…’

The constable looked on as the duo got into the jeep. He saw it winding through the snake-like roads through the misty hills.

‘Wonder, if I’ll get some tea nearby…’, he thought to himself.

* * *

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DOG

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’.

‘Why sir?’

‘Just get the stick, damn you!’

‘Ok sir!’

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.’

‘What?’

‘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?’

‘Sir, but…’

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…