"The true paradises are those that we have lost."-Marcel Proust
Though years later, many colorful stories, some true and some not, that had floated around our small-town made Bona notorious, the very first incident that brought him to the limelight happened when he asked the doomed question in the moral science class.
Sister Grace, newly ordained, new to our town, was quite reluctant to accept her responsibilities of conducting the moral science class, for the 9th standard boys. She was not quite comfortable in the company of boys in short-pants, about to become men. On the particular day, the boys were restless for the cricket game that was to follow after the class.
“Any questions boys?” She asked indifferently; she wasn’t expecting any, knowing the boys were eager for the game. When Bona raised a hand from the last bench, she got pleasantly surprised.
Though, in literal she said “any questions”——she meant a question related to her domain: religion. She was, in a sense, qualified enough for any questions on religion that a ninth standard boy could have come up with.
On the other hand, Bona misinterpreted her entirely. For him, any questions meant anything in the world——encyclopedic in scope.
“Yes, Bonaventure,” Sister Grace came down from the podium——to hear him clearly. She had collected her attendance book, chalks, and duster intending to leave the class from the backdoor after answering Bona’s question.
Bona stood up. He looked at the boys——who were clearly irritated by his intervention that would delay the game. Bona ignored them and boldly put forward his query: “Why do dogs lift hind legs, while peeing?”
Shocked, Sister Grace could not believe her ears.
“Pardon me?” she said nervously, placing the book and the duster on the nearby desk.
Bona repeated the question. The students, who had missed his query first time, heard it clearly this time. A cacophony, mingled with bench-thumping that could have brought down the roof, broke out. Sister Grace trembled in horror. For her, this wild group looked like an army of apes——ready to attack at the slightest disturbance.
Bona got equally confused by the commotion; but realized immediately that Sister Grace needed to be rescued from this wild bunch.
“Sister Grace,” he said with great urgency, “It is fine if you don’t know the answer. One is not expected to know everything.”
This well-intended advice backfired. The resulted noise was so high that principal Sastri, who was conducting History classes on the third floor, came down running. On seeing him, noise seized at once. Sister Grace dashed out of the class. There, she talked to the principal, in low tones. Between the sobs, the whole event was narrated that didn’t make much sense to Sastri. However, he didn’t demand further clarification from the devastated God’s confidante. After this confession, Sister Grace went straight to the chapel, where she spent rest of the day in prayer. Sastri ordered the boys to leave for the day with a pin-drop-silence. The class obeyed, except Bona——who was summoned to the principal’s office.
In the office, Bona noticed the pictures of past principals hung on the wall. At the end of this long line of dignitaries was a picture of Jesus——who was never the principal, also not adequately dressed up for the portrait. Among these dignitaries, Jesus looked less qualified——an odd man out. Bona wanted to point out this inconsistency, but thought better of it. He had narrated the whole event with utmost sincerity to the principal, who had his own doubts about the ignorant sitting across: Is he really innocent or a Smart Aleck taking me for a ride? Sastri wondered.
“Why did you ask that question?” Sastri said eventually.
“Belcha wets our-”
“Belcha—our neighbor Silam’s dog wets our rose bushes, daily. I was curious-” For Sastri, who had seen more life and more eccentricity, this answer sounded reasonable. He didn’t poke further questions——for he feared such provocation would lead to unwanted confusion in the young mind.
After this incident Bona had to visit principal’s office now and then for various reasons. Sastri always heard Bona’s version before judging him. One time, in a Teacher’s meeting Bona’s subject came up. “Our academic system,” said Sastri, “is not ready for Bona.” Sister Grace, alerted on hearing Bona’s name, didn’t approve this reasoning, but decided to ignore the comment. However, she developed a life long fear for Bona and his unpredictable questions.
Years later, when he was working as a school bus-driver, Bona paid her a visit at the hospital——on hearing about her illness. She recognized him at once. “You are that evil boy with the ridiculous question!” She looked visibly shaken. “I wish,” she continued, between coughs, “someone could ask such a preposterous question to you. And then I want to see the color draining from your evil-face!” It seemed like some kind of a curse. No one had called Bona evil, twice in such a short span. He ran out of the hospital, never to return, till a strange incident——that occurred years later——caused a need for his hospitalization.
The dog-question though, made him quite famous. People talked about it for days. Later many such stories circulated in and around our small-town. At its peak, the rumors and counter-rumors had reached such mythological proportions that people at distant places doubted the very existence of such a personage. Such people were pleasantly surprised on meeting the man himself, accidentally, in one of their errands.
The predictions made by Sastri——many years ago——had materialized. Either the academia was not ready for Bona or he was not ready for it. The fragile bond had broken. And, in a world where academic qualifications dictated the job industry, he had failed to get a decent job.
Eventually, his Mother begged Sastri, who made him school bus driver—with nothing else to offer. Sastri had felt sad for his odd-ball student. Neighbors were sorry for his failure in the real world. The only person, content and indifferent to the state of affairs, was Bona himself. The new job offered him a lot of flexibility. Between his shifts he worked at the Church. After the previous sexton passed away, the post was still vacant. On weekends, he was the captain of our junior cricket team. He was the senior most member; other players had played for the team during their time and moved on, not Bona——whose loyalty was unshakable.
His shift started early in the morning with washing and cleaning the bus; usually, there would be used chewing-gums stuck under the seats or semi-naked pictures on the last row. Bona would use the pictures to remove the gums. After the wash, the bus would majestically roam around the town collecting boys and safely deposit them at the school. Then he would walk to the near by church, where our vicar would have day’s chores ready for him. Sometimes Bona would accompany the old-vicar, on his ancient scooter, for distributing communion at the old-age-home. On the days of odd masses, usually offered for sudden deaths, Bona would stay back after the masses to close the doors and switch off the ceiling fans.
Early one day, while washing the bus, Bona noticed something under the tire. A dog was sleeping. His efforts to shoo it away failed; on a closer look he realized the dog was dead. It was Belcha——the dog had played a pivotal role in Bona’s life. He remembered the fateful question. After the class, Bona had cornered Silam, dog’s owner, threatening to cut off his sprinkler (dog’s), if measures were not taken to restrain the dog from showering the rose bushes.
Post Silam’s death, Belcha had become a stray. And, here it was dead and cold. There was no blood: it was not an accident. The dog had simply died——Heart attack, concluded Bona. He was getting late for the school. No one was around to help. Finally, by grabbing the tail, Bona dragged the dog out and placed it near the edge of the road.
The next day, Bona found the dog at the same place, unmoved. It had swollen a bit; its features were stiff. A strong smell was developing around it. After dropping the students at the school, Bona went to the Panchayat, where he was told that the person responsible for such cleanups had eloped with a younger member; a substantial amount of money collected for public toilets was missing too. “We have a bigger issue here,” said the ill-tempered Panchayat president.
At dusk, unobserved, Bona dug a hole, and buried the dog. That night, after the dinner the phone rang. Bona was politely asked for. “Ask your friends to call in the mornings,” said Mother, from the kitchen.
“Yes.” Bona got surprised——no one had addressed him by his full name in a long time. “Sir,” continued the voice, “your kindness to the dead dog has not gone unnoticed; it is the mark of a noble citizen.”
Bona, at once sensed the news reporter tone. The language from the other side was articulate——not the village pidgin. His chest heaved with pride. He imagined seeing himself on the front page of The Daily Alarm our local newspaper——holding Model Citizen Trophy.
“What can I do for you?” Bona said politely, relishing every moment.
“Another opportunity has made itself available for your kind disposal, sir.” Said the voice.
“I didn’t understand-”
“A stray dog has met the same fate of Belcha. No one is taking the responsibility of giving it a decent burial. And you sir—the gentle soul—who’s expert in such delicate matters and having prior experience, remains the sole candidate, whose services are utmost needed in these dire times—”
At this point Bona heard giggles on the other side.
“Who is this?”
“Bona—come immediately. The dog has stunk up the whole place.” The voice at once had lost the finesse and a loud laughter was heard.
An uncontrollable fit seized Bona. “Just tell me your name, if you-” but the line went dead.
The next day, after the morning shift, Bona went to the telephone exchange. There he met the newly appointed trainee, Shanbag; only a few months back Shanbag was the vice captain of the junior cricket team, under Bona. Knowing his Vice captain well, Bona didn’t tell him about the mysterious phone call. He feared another colorful rumor. He just wanted the number from where the call was made.
“We don’t keep local call history,” said an irritated Shanbag at the unusual request. “Think about maintaining the log for all the afternoon housewives’ chatter-”
Bona ignored this remark. “You are saying, if someone threatens my life on the phone, you cannot provide a proof?”
“Who threatened you?” said Shanbag, alerted.
“I am giving you an example——”
“What could be the motive?”
“Why would someone wants to kill you? Who would benefit from your death?”
“How should I know? I would be long dead and gone by that time——because of the inefficiency of the telephone people.”
Shanbag let this comment pass——there was no arguing with Bona. The whole thing is a nuisance, concluded Shanbag. He didn’t want any part in this farce while on probation. The current captain and the former vice captain reached a dead-end. A pregnant silence ensued.
“Are you interested in the Sunday tournament?” Bona shifted gears, lured the opponent. This hurt the feelings of ex-vice captain, “I am done with cricket,” said he, controlling his anger.
“Match is on Sunday,” said Bona, Ignoring the other completely. “You don’t work on weekends, do you?”
“Life is not cricket!” shouted Shanbag. He had the paperweight in his hand, firmly gripped. He had to control himself not to use it as a weapon. “You should leave,” Shanbag said eventually. Now that the moment had passed, he composed himself. “You should really forget this dog incident,” Shanbag consoled Bona.
Alaram——twisted Colloquialization of The Daily Alarm——had published a reportage on the mysterious phone call. After which, Bona had paid a visit to the proprietor T. K. Parthasarathi, who was duly warned against spreading such rumors. The next few days Bona closely monitored Alarm. There were no more updates on the phone calls. However, there were page-long articles on violence in Mangalore. Something else had taken Partha’s fancy. Off late, Alarm had started sensationalizing irrelevant subjects. Bona stopped the vigil after a week.
The mysterious call had disturbed him. He had heard the voice before, but could not put a face to it. His thoughts trailed off when he saw the Imam Sahib at the mosque. “What happened to the window?” The glass was broken.
“One of the sixers. Don’t worry about it,” said Imam sahib, “it was due for replacement anyway.”
Being the captain of the team, this concerned Bona. The team needs to be warned against such incidents. He found the junior cricket team at the old-abandoned road. The group was curiously observing something on the ground. Before he could warn them, someone asked: “Do you think this manhole lid falls inside?” For Bona this looked like a pointless question. Nevertheless, when the question was repeated, he said: “Impossible.”
“Gigu says it will fall inside.” Bona had kept Gigu out of the team in the last match, on account of his poor form.
“In theory,” started Bona, “the manhole lids are designed circular so that they don’t fall in-”
“Wrong,” countered Gigu.
“Why don’t you stand on it?” Someone challenged. Bona was not in the mood to counter challenge. He started walking away from the crowd.
“Are you afraid?”
Bona stopped. The whole world is against me, concluded Bona. He wanted to wring the challenger, right there. The team cheered for the captain. Reluctantly, he placed one leg on the manhole lid; the other leg was firmly secured on the ground bearing all his weight. The lid was firm and unmovable. The team cheered once again. Now that he had the upper hand, a demonstration was needed, a lesson required to be taught to the challenger. Bona gave a small bow to the team, his supporters. Then to further cement their approval he jumped on the lid with an I-Told-You-So smirk on the face.
On the third leap, the lid fell inside carrying Bona along. He fell like a jackfruit falling in a water pool——with a big splash. A sudden panic engulfed the whole group.
Postman Inas, who was watching this curious incident from a distance, came running for the rescue. Some of the boys, including Gigu, had vanished off the scene. The one remained were unmovable, frozen. A few years back, in a similar situation, a cow had stuck in the swamp and the desperate attempt led by Postman-Inas had failed. Inas was determined not to fail this time.
A rope, borrowed from the neighboring well, was let down in the manhole. The other end was securely circled the nearby mango tree. However, the team could not pull Bona up, the weight too much. Inas peeped inside, found Bona at halfway, holding the lid.
“Leave off the lid,” shouted Inas.
“The lid comes with me,” Bona’s voice came from the darkness, “Or I won’t come up.”
Inas didn’t argue with Bona—he knew it was a waste of time. “I don’t know why I get into this,” he cursed himself for volunteering this thankless job.
Eventually Bona was raised, from darkness. A bucket of water was poured on him that hardly removed the stench. Bona didn’t care. He went straight to Sagar Metal Works, to fix the defected lid.
That night the phone rang.
Mother said: “Tell your friends not to-”
“I know,” said Bona.
Bona quietly waited. The Voice congratulated Bona for fixing the manhole lid. However he was warned against any future telephone-exchange visits. This strict warning——from the omniscient mystery man——shattered Bona. Made him speechless. When no response was heard from Bona, The Voice disconnected.
There was a conspiracy brewing against me, concluded Bona. The strange events looked like a meticulous sabotage——well planned and organized. All this thinking was going on in his mind, while he was waiting for the evening trip.
Unknowingly, he touched a thick liquid like substance on the cement bench. He retrieved his hand in alert and noticed red color all over his palm. “Spoiled children of rich parents!” Bona cursed the brats who had spilled paint at his usual seat. He took a sniff. It was odorless.
“It’s blood,” Sastri had quietly made his presence. On hearing the word, Bona felt weak, suddenly everything around started spinning and he lost conscience.
When communal outrage sprouted all over the country, our town was indifferent at first——like an island. It looked like a perfect little heaven. But these days didn’t last long.
Hell broke out with an unreasonable killing of an innocent. One of the morning walkers had found the dead body on the cement bench, in front of the school. Police was notified. It was just a way of keeping the score. In bigger cities, people forget these events the next day. But in our town, where days drag slowly, people talk about such things for months.
Bona had missed the whole event; he had gone on a school picnic. When Bona lost conscience, acknowledging the blood, Sastri supported him from falling down. Bona was rushed to the hospital, from where he had ran away years ago after the bitter encounter with Sister Grace. For months, he would eat with a spoon. He would wash hands frequently——the image of bloodied hand haunted him all the time.
These events brought new life in our town. Every other day there was some kind of demonstration or protest in the nearby Mangalore city. Bus rides were arranged from our town. Many participated just because the rides were free or for the refreshments distributed on these rides——it was a picnic for them.
New faces showed up in our town. They were found in front of Vasu’s hotel or in the bus stand. These people sat in those places for hours. They were waiting.
Till a few months back, there was some night life. In the bus-stand one would find people from the last bus from Mangalore or Autos waiting for the people who had missed the last bus. Nowadays, people shut the doors at sunset. A strange calmness lingers in the air.
Bona was late; he had met an old friend in the market. They sat at Vasu’s hotel remembering old days, unaware of the passing time, until it was time to close. On the mud-road to his home, he heard some disturbance in the thicket. Before he could do anything he was surrounded by a group of people. Their faces were covered with masks or cloth. In the dark Bona could not see their features clearly. Initially, Bona struggled, but soon realized it was of no use. He was immobile. A man with a mask with holes for eyes came forward. He observed Bona in the dancing flames of cigarette lighter.
“Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?”
Bona who had stupefied people with his eccentric questions, could not come up with an answer. Am I a Muslim or a Hindu? He asked himself. But the logical part of his brain had frozen.
“Why bother an answer? Just finish him.” Someone suggested.
One of the assailants had held him by the neck——which hurt him terribly. In this pain he remembered Sister Grace and her curse. Finally, someone had asked Bona an unanswerable question. Small beads of sweat formed on his forehead. His breathing hastened.
“If you-” bona coughed. “If you give me a moment, I will answer your question,” Bona said. He was relieved. Within moments Bona removed his shirt and before anyone could protest he removed the pant and every single bit of cloth off his body, and stood naked in front of his captors.
“I don’t know if I am a Hindu or a Muslim,” Bona said. “I am standing naked in front of you. If God had left any clues on my body, about my religion, it is up to you good people to find out.”
This sudden development confused the crowd; in a frenzy a sword was raised, which stopped in mid air when an outcry was heard at distance. A crowd with torches and poles led by Sastri came for the rescue. By that time the attackers had vanished.
After this incident, he went mute. Bona, who had puzzled people with his bizarre ideas, for once went silent. He cut down his outings. Inas filled the temporary bus driver post.
In the past, Bona would close the doors by sunset, only to be opened in the morning. Now, doors stood open all the time. He had started his night strolls. For hours he would sit on the fated cement bench. The blood stains were dried out. In the moonlight one could see his silhouette frozen in time.
One morning he went to the mosque; the window glass had been fixed. The new glass didn’t gel with the faded old glasses of adjacent windows. It was a temporary fix——just to serve the need of the hour. The cricket ground was next to the Mosque. Bona measured the distance between the window and the cricket pitch; even Tendulkar couldn’t have hit such long six. Things were slowly changing for months. Alarm had warned from the beginning. How could I not notice these things?
“Bona!” boys waved from the passing school bus. From the distance he could not identify individuals. In their uniform they looked alike, undistinguishable from one another.
When Sastri came to know about Bona’s silence, he went straight to his home. Old scooter was precariously parked at the gate. The vicar was inside, so were Inas, Vasu, and some other people. It was a small crowd. Sastri pulled a chair. Bona ignored the teacher, continued staring the floor.
“Bona we have to live with these new developments,” Sastri said, “They are integral part now. Like the weather and rain and sun.
More such incidents will follow in the future. This time no Messiah is going to come for the rescue. People who know this very well, will take advantage.
Some of us who approve these deeds are no different than the miscreants who have created these atrocities. Such people should ask themselves——Is any God important than neighbor’s blood? Does any religion demand innocent’s blood?
One should not lose hope in these times, for that would be the ultimate victory for the enemies.”
Sastri sat in silence. No improvement was seen in Bona. Booth Incha——he has a telephone booth——came forward, placed a piece of paper in Bona’s hand. Bona gave a questionable look.
“I keep a receipt of every call made from my booth, for my accounts.”
Bona checked the receipt. He saw the date and time. It was the date of the first call.
“I write the name of the caller on the backside. Some clients prefer a monthly settlement.”
Bona turned the receipt. There was the name, scribbled in long hand: Shanbag. Suddenly he could fit the face and the voice. Bona remembered Shanbag mentioning the dog. Though, Bona had not said anything about the incident. The vice-captain never rose to the position of captaincy; never got a chance to lead the junior team. Jealousy had taken over. Frustrated, he had devised a plan to take revenge. It all came to Bona. His whole body stared shivering. Blood rushed to his face turning it red.
“I am going to kill the son of——” Bona gulped the trailing words realizing Sastri’s presence; He composed himself, and then dashed out in search of his prey.
Sastri let out a deep sigh. A thin smile came on his face. There is still hope in this place, he thought.
Note: If you liked this short story, you might like my other short stories as well. Click here for more.
Note: This story was published in Daijiworld.com