Choices by Nilanjana Chakraborty
Once again, the hilly forests of the Aravalli resounded with the shout. “Chhagni!”
Suddenly, there was a low bleating heard in the thorny bushes at the foot of the slope on top of which the boy stood. “Oh, there you are. Chhagni, you naughty girl. I have been calling for you since ages now.” The boy scrambled down the slope and was soon beside the little spotted goat-kid, its collar stuck in the brambles. “Come on. It’s nearly sundown and we must reach home before the wild beasts come out.” He disentangled the kid, picked it up in his arms and ran back the slope.
“There the rest of the herd is. Done grazing for the day and waiting for you. See, how late you’ve got us? Gave me quite a fright, too. Don’t you again go wandering off on your own, ever.” The boy put Chhagni down only to pick her up again after he had placed a small bundle of dried twigs and branches on his head. “Hak, hak. Yaat.” He started coaxing his small herd of about half a dozen goats along the winding forest paths, carrying Chhagni in his arms and balancing the wood on his head. The trees were already edged out in orange, as the procession made its way through the hills.
“Bapu” the boy called out softly as he entered the little mud hut. An oil lamp was burning in the corner, throwing lights and shadows on the careworn face of a man squatting beside a mattress on the floor. From between the sheets came a feeble female voice, “Boy, are you home?”
The boy slowly went and sat beside the man. “Yes Mai, I am home.” He kept looking at the pallid, emaciated face of the woman lying on the bed as she stretched her cracked, dry lips in a half smile before closing her eyes in exhaustion. He turned to look at his father inquiringly. The man looked exhausted too. “No improvement”, he said without moving.
They kept sitting there for some time, nobody speaking. Finally, the boy spoke again. “Did you have anything since I left?” The man just dully repeated, “No. Did you?”
The boy slowly got up. “I carried a couple of rotis that I had prepared in the morning. I left a few for you too. Why didn’t you eat, Bapu?”
The man sighed. “Don’t know, son. Didn’t feel like it. Kept sitting here nearly the whole day.”
“What about Mai?”
“Gave her some goat milk from time to time, whenever she felt thirsty. She is not able to chew and so can’t take any solid food.” The man looked up. “Did you collect any wood today?”
“Yes. But just enough only for our cooking. There wouldn’t be any left for selling.” The boy went over to the corner of the room and started straightening out the few utensils that made the kitchen. “There’s some flour left over from yesterday. We can at least have a dinner of rotis with some onions and chilies.”
“You must be tired, boy. Go and freshen up a bit and sit with your Mai. I’ll do the cooking.” The man got up and started arranging his dhoti around his bare waist.
“However, we’ll have nothing left to eat tomorrow, if we don’t do something about it.”
“Well, there’s the goat-milk, as usual. We’ll sell some to buy the flour. And maybe some vegetables.” The boy said. “Wake me up early tomorrow. I’ll milk the goats and go down the valley to sell it to the village milkman and get the groceries. That way you won’t need to go yourself and can stay to look after Mai.”
“Here Mai, have some milk.” The boy gently pressed a spoon to the woman’s lips. She parted her lips obediently and let the warm liquid trickle in. The boy continued to feed her from the bowl, stopping intermittently when she coughed. Then he wiped her face with a damp cloth. “There, I’ll get you some more.” He got up to leave.
“No, my son. That’s enough.” The woman mumbled. “Did you have anything yourself?”
“Don’t worry, Mai. We have already had our meals. You just try to relax and take it easy.
Very soon when you are recovered enough you may cook for us yourself.” The boy kept the bowl aside and made her comfortable. Then he massaged her limbs, while talking about his day and whispering reassurances to her till she fell asleep. From where he sat he could see the star lit sky framed by the door, with the shape of the man silhouetted against it. He got up and went out to sit beside him.
“She doesn’t seem any better, Bapu. The medicines don’t seem to be working. It’s nearly two weeks now. Her fever is as high as ever.”
“It was the village Hakim, who gave the medicines to me the last time I went down the valley. He had warned me that they were not sufficient and that his medicines were only for temporary relief. He had urged me to take her to the city hospital.” The man kept gazing at the sky, looking utterly helpless. Suddenly, he turned to the boy, “You have secured the goats properly, haven’t you?”
“Yes, Bapu. All the goats are properly secured in the other room and the door properly fastened. Why do you ask?” The boy looked at his father.
“No reason in particular. Just ascertaining for myself.” The man shifted uncomfortably.
“Boy, I know you will not like to hear this, but I have decided to sell the goats and take your mother to the city hospital tomorrow.”
“What?” The boy was stunned. “But Bapu, how would we earn a living without the goats, once the money is gone?”
“I have thought about that too. You’ll stay with your Mai at the hospital and look after her, while I go out and earn a living as a daily wage laborer. I have heard that there is a lot of construction work going on in the city. I’m sure that I’ll fit in somewhere. The money from the goats will help us to move to the city and get your mother admitted to the hospital.” The man said.
“Bapu,” the boy sounded unsure. “I love Mai as much as you do. But do you think we’ll be better off in the city than here? Is it not possible to borrow some money from the village money-lender instead of selling the goats?”
“Boy, my dear boy” the man suddenly looked anguished, the depth of his sorrow surfacing for the first time. “Don’t you think that these thoughts have already crossed my mind? This is the only life, we have known. We have grown up as tribals living in these forests, through generations. As it is, our ways are different from the village folks down the valley, just think how different they are from those of the city folks. However, desperate situations call for desperate measures. I feel that your mother will not survive unless something is done soon. You are young and inexperienced. You have no idea how much a man can adapt in a new environment.” He paused. “I have already been to the money lender after hearing what the Hakim had to say.”
“So?” the boy asked, full of concern.
“Didn’t work out. He wanted collaterals, fixed assets. I had nothing of the like to offer. The goats weren’t acceptable to him either.”
“Bapu”, the boy pleaded in a small voice. “Do you think, it would be okay to keep Chhagni with us? I have really grown close to her over the past couple of months since she was born. She’s become more of a pet, you know.” He looked at his father wistfully.
The expression on the man's face was inscrutable as he looked at the boy under the cool starlit sky. His voice was dull, as he replied, “This is life boy. You are condemned to choose. Who is more important to you? The woman who brought you into this world or the goat who came to you only a few days ago. I think, there can be no doubt in this matter at all. The life of a human being is by all means more valuable than that of an animal.”
The boy hung his face in embarrassment as he replied, “I did not mean it that way, Bapu. I was just wondering if we could keep Chhagni with us too as we tended to Mai? I would have looked after her as well, while looking after Mai in the hospital. I know Mai would get well and then we all could come back again to live here.”
The man sounded kind as he stretched out his hand to pat the boy on his head. “That's all right boy. You are still young. However, in real life you have to make firm decisions sometimes where there's no scope of a second choice. This matter is settled. You go down the valley tomorrow morning and sell the goats to the village milkman. He'll buy them up, as he deals in livestock too. Get the money, buy some groceries for two days and return. I'll prepare your Mai for the travel and get together the things that would be necessary to stay at the city hospital.”
The sun was well above the eastern horizon and the day was turning out quite warm. However, the boy felt cold deep inside as he trudged along the mountain paths, homeward. He could not bear to think about Chhagni bleating plaintively as he handed her along with the other goats to the milkman. He had quietly pocketed the money given to him, bought the groceries and turned back. He could also not bear to think about his mother, who lay there suffering day after day while his father's health deteriorated, worrying endlessly.
As he entered the hut, he was stunned. His father was kneeling beside the mattress and sobbing his heart out on the sheets. “Father”, the boy rushed to his side and hugged him as he turned a tear stained face to look at the boy. “It's all over, son. Your Mai is no more.”
A few months had passed. The boy finished washing the dishes at the small restaurant where he now worked. He wiped his face with his shirt and went to collect his wages from the manager. He then made his way through the narrow streets towards the little slum where he now lived with his father in a small hut.
“Bapu, I am home.” called out the boy. The man was squatting on the floor from where he replied “Come, son. See, I sold enough today to be able to start saving up a bit. Then maybe we can have a push cart of our own to sell the vegetables in.”
The boy went into the corner where they maintained their kitchen and laid out two dishes for themselves. As they started having their food, the boy asked, somewhat remotely, “How nice it would have been if Mai was with us today. We left our old way of life but could not keep her with us.”
His father turned to look at him. “That's life son. Your Mai died because she had to. But we are able to live with that today because we did all that we could for her sake.”
Nilanjana Chakraborty is a Financial Economist by profession and resides in Ahmedabad with her husband who is an Astrophysicist. She completed her doctorate from Department of Management Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore in 2011 and has been working as a freelance researcher since then.
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