His grandma is angry. His grandma is angry because he’s hungry. She bluntly expresses her wish to cut him into two in a single stroke of a khurpa. Her hands scrabble on the semi-dark kitchen floor, around her feet partly covered by her sari, as if looking for a khurpa. To cut him into two in a single stroke.
She is fishing for firewood beside the oven, now dead. Anger makes it hard for her to concentrate. And it’s getting dark. The sun has almost set, and there’s no electricity. It’s not time yet to light the kerosene lamp; darkness has to get thicker for the luxury. Once she kindles fire, a flickering light will paint the dark corner of the thatched-roofed house, displaying his grandma’s bitter face and watery eyes. He’s not sure if he wants to see it all. He is hungry and his grandma’s angry face will make him feel more pathetic.
Now his grandma’s anger has peaked because he is not just hungry, he’s crying too. And there’s not much she can do. She can prepare him cornbread that she knows he hates, he hates it because there won’t be anything to go with it, like vegetable or yogurt. She can roast him dry corn and he always revolts against the idea of roasted dry corn. Dry and hard and it won’t fill his stomach.
He’s just returned from school, some fifteen minutes’ walk home. He hasn’t had a thing to swallow since he had plain rice with a quarter bowl of milk around nine this morning. He is hungry and he faults his grandma for not having something ready for him to eat when he returns from school, while she keeps working her hands, not finding a thing, not kindling fire, but repeating profanity—she wants to cut him into two pieces. With a khurpa, the biggest sickle in the house, in a single stroke.
He knows she won’t harm him. She hasn’t ever touched him in the form of punishment. She doesn’t have the guts to do it even if she’s wild. He suspects she is this much angry and says she wants to cut him into two also because she can’t punish him physically. She is a weakling. Or else, she has a special affection for him that she can’t quite see because it’s hidden behind the darkness of her bitterness.
But her anger hurts him. The rage she exhumes is painful to take in. He cries more. Now not just because of hunger but because of the intensity of hatred that he sees consuming her. His grandma doesn’t express her wish to behead him when she has something to put in front of him upon his return from school, a tired and hungry nine-year-old. She simply tosses food to him and walks out. She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t ask him how his day at school was. She doesn’t ask him how he’s feeling. She doesn’t know how to show her love for a nine-year-old, or anyone for that matter. She only gets angry when he is hungry. Sometimes he falls asleep while crying beside the oven, waiting for food. When he wakes up, he finds his grandma lost in thoughts.
His grandma is a widow. She has been a widow since he knew her. It didn’t occur to him for a long time she could have a husband too, like grandmas of his playmates, and she’d lost him. But now he suspects that she is angry also because she is lonely. She never talks with him about his grandpa. But sometimes she is feeding him beside the oven, and her eyes fill with tears. She kneads her feet with a hand and makes tears with her eyes. He feels bad for her and thinks of his grandpa at such moments.
His grandma had two sons but only one survives. When he was born, his pa was in India, where he worked, and when he came home for a visit, he didn’t stay long enough for him to know the man as his father. He’s heard that his uncle died of unidentified causes in India. He has heard the village women say the younger son was his grandma’s favorite. He was gentler, and came home for a visit from India every year. The last time he came, he is told, he played with the less-than-a year-old baby the whole time he stayed home. He returned to his wife and children in India in a month, and never came back.
His grandma has two daughters. Sometimes they come to visit her, usually during festivals and she spends most of her time listening to them, her eyes wet. When she talks in their presence, she talks loudly and laughs riotously, something she doesn’t do with his ma. She often talks about relations. She knows who is who to whom in all the surrounding villages. She is animated when people start disentangling relations. He wishes her daughters visited her more. She is less angry when her daughters are around.
He believes his grandma is angry with his ma too, but he doesn’t know the reason. Maybe his ma is mean to her. He doesn’t know. In fact, he hardly knows his ma. He shares his bed with his grandma, and his grandma feeds him. His ma works outside, meaning that she tends the buffaloes, and she works in the field. She gets out in early morning to fetch fodder for the cattle. When she returns in the afternoon, he’s gone to school. When he returns from school, she’s still in the field. By the time she returns home, it’s already dark— there’s no electricity, and he can’t see her very well.
She doesn’t ask him about his day. She hardly asks him anything, in fact. She is busy. She works hard, from five in the morning to ten or eleven at night. He hears her cleaning dishes from his bed. He has rarely seen his grandma talk to her. If he asks her anything about his ma, she is angry.
His grandma is a scavenger by nature. He doesn’t know much about what lies on the upper floor of the house. The floor’s always dark— it has no windows, and everything in there is layered with soot that rises from the kitchen downstairs. He likes it though when his grandma climbs up the stairs and starts rummaging through the darkness. She spends quite a while under the thatched roof, and sometimes comes down with a piece of coconut or a sugar candy for him. When she hands him the treasure, she says nothing. She only sticks her hand out to him, her find still hiding in her closed fist.
The gift is so treasured. It can’t be even called by a name. It can’t be openly displayed. He has to grab it from her hand and put it into his mouth in a flash. He has to close his mouth tightly and swallow the morsel secretly. As if an invisible creature would otherwise grow envious and snatch it. She is especially cautious when his ma happens to be around, though she does most of her scavenging when she’s alone.
During the Monsoon season, when mangoes ripen, her first job in the morning is to rummage the bushes in the mango groves. She wants to make sure that she gets the best of the windfall. In fact, she wants all the mangoes. Good or bad. She’s usually back when he’s awake but not out of his bed yet. She sits beside him and sees him eat some, while she keeps for herself the ones that don’t look good, mostly the ones with holes in them. She doesn’t care about worms. She is angry if he complains. There are no bad mangoes.
After mangoes come guavas. She cannot climb trees and guavas do not fall overnight like mangoes. Still, she visits the groves in early morning, and she is happy to collect a few bird-caved ones. She says the ones that the birds have tried taste better. She has no teeth, not a single one, so she cannot bite. The guavas are mostly for him, but she saves for herself the ones that are creamy-yellowish and that she can squeeze between her fingers. She doesn’t care about the reddish slime blotting her clothes. She is angry if his ma complains about it. She enters a soliloquy that she’ll wash her own clothes.
His grandma has developed an unmatched love for the fruit of khaniyo, a kind of wild fig. It’s not fruit for most villagers. The fruits that are on the vines don’t have as much flesh as the ones that are on the roots, neither buried nor fully out in the open. His grandma knows exactly where the fleshy ones are to be found. When he’s home from school, the fruits are the first thing she offers him if she happens to have them during the season. But his ma is not happy with the way his grandma practices poverty. She believes they are not as poor as his grandma projects it to be by collecting wild fruits. He has never heard his ma talk about eating them. He imagines that her relationship with khaniyo ends with its foliage that she collects to feed buffaloes. They have good enough land to produce corn and millet to last for the whole year. They also have a small paddy field though the rice it yields is not enough for them, and so they’re forced to eat corn meal that they all hate. His grandma wants to believe that they have no paddy field at all; they have no buffaloes to supply them milk; they have nothing in the house. They are poor. Very very poor. That’s why her son is forced to be a muglani, a migrant worker. That’s why she lost one of her sons.
There are rumors that his uncle was killed. What a karma he didn’t get to die a natural death! He was killed in muglan, a foreign land, like a stray dog. For reasons no one knows. There are rumors still circulating that it had to do with his marriage. But who knows? What killed the father of two young daughters? His grieving grandma will never know. She won’t get anybody to help her find out the reason. The other son is useless at it. He isn’t even home in times of her sorrow. What is she left with but a hole in her heart and an uncertain longing to know what killed the poor man who never quarreled with a villager or any family member.
He is told his grandma loves him most because he came to this earth to fill the vacuum his uncle would soon leave. She hasn’t told him anything about her lost son, but she has uttered a couple of times in a muffled voice “loved you.” She doesn’t even say who loved him. When she says this, tears well in her eyes and she chokes.
He’s still hungry and he’s crying. Even if she kindles fire now and starts cooking something, it’ll take time to be ready. He’s in no condition to wait. He’s pathetically hungry. He begins to cry more as he thinks that his grandma must have spent the whole afternoon going around the village, probably disparaging his ma. She extracts pleasure from disparaging family members, he knows, but he also knows that the very act makes her unhappier when she goes to bed. Is that why her pillow is a tear-stained mess?
She expresses her wish again to neatly cut him into two pieces. With a sharp khurpa, a khurpa that the villagers use to slaughter goats in Dashain. He has digested her threat, but her madness tortures him. He is devastated. He cries more.
“Khurpale chhapakka dui tukra parera,” neatly into two pieces with a khurpa. “Dushman!” she says. Dushman, the enemy! She wants to cut her enemy into two pieces.
He suddenly understands that his grandma has enemies, enemies that she wants to cut into two pieces. His grandma is angry, but not with him. He pauses his crying.
“Dushman,” she repeats. “They killed my babu,” my baby son! She can’t locate any firewood; she doesn’t seem to be searching for it anymore. She’s searching for a khurpa. A khurpa to cut her enemy into two pieces, the enemy who killed her son who’d been forced to flee to India in search of work.
He stops crying. He does not feel hungry anymore. Or else, he doesn’t want to eat anything although he’s hungry. Or, he may eat anything his grandma might toss his way. Or, not eat at all if his grandma chooses not to prepare him anything. His grandma is angry, angry and sad and helpless.
He’s filled with what feels like pity for her. There is no soul more miserable than a soul helplessly angry and sad. He thinks of grabbing her hand and commanding her to stop pretending that she’s searching for firewood. He wants her to stop the nonsense and confront him instead— What’s your selfish hunger in front of my soul-crushing sorrows? Stop whining and become a man! But he cannot. He’s not used to showing concern for anyone openly. He’s not used to showing his love or having love shown to him publicly. The most they can do to show love in his family is to cry. It is intensely primordial and degrading but that’s what they do.
But he doesn’t even want to cry for his grandma. He doesn’t feel so intense yet to show his love.
He is exhausted, and his grandma has started kneading her feet in the thickening dark. They have nothing to talk about, or to complain. They have both gone through their own struggles and lost them in their own ways. They will accept their fates, at least until he returns home from school yet another day to no snacks ready for him and his grandma is again overcome by the loss of her favorite son.
Image: JIRCAS photo archive by Kaneda Thukitchi, licensed under CC 2.0.