Agnivesh – Bright as Fire
The old cottage stood just outside the village, in a small clearing of the coconut grove and near the backwaters. The grey of its walls had begun to fade, and a few tiles had fallen from the roof into the compound, which was empty but for a tulsi plant and three coconut trees toward one side. The other plants in the garden had wilted. The gardener, who hadn’t been paid much, only watered the holy tulsi plant and the coconut trees when he came.
Everyone in the village called it “The Summer Cottage”. For as far as they had known, the family there would leave it locked most of the year, getting it cleaned a week before they came on summer vacation from the city. This year, it was different. The family was returning after two years. The contractor had got the spare keys a fortnight ahead and began the painting work. The gardener, having got his dues, brought in some potted plants, and planted seeds for the grass to grow. The electrician could be seen fixing the loose switches and fixing a geyser in the bathroom. Once the repairs were done, the maids could be seen cleaning the place, fluffing the pillows and making the beds. An idol of Lord Ganesha was newly installed in the puja room. Finally, the people could see the name of the cottage, shining in gold letters from a black name board near the main door.
The villagers thought it odd to name the house after fire, which they felt was destroying, inauspicious. But who were they to say anything?
On a warm April evening, the family arrived, to everyone’s surprise, by the local bus. Naveen Nair was looking taller than they had last seen, and Sreeja, his wife was almost as petite as she had been the last time. The second surprise was the one year old in Sreeja’s arms. He looked around, curious about the new surroundings, the people looking at him and wondering if he had to start crying. They made their way down the street toward the cottage, knowing that all eyes were on their child. If they craned their neck, stood quietly and listened, they may just have been able to hear the whispers.
“What a handsome boy!”
“But she doesn’t look like she’s just had a baby.”
“Should we ask?”
But the three of them didn’t hear, and they didn’t bother waiting for anyone to come ask them. They opened the gate to the compound and went inside. The maid was sitting on the front steps and she spoke with them for a while, and then left them to rest. Before long, the rumors began to spread like wildfire.
“They adopted the boy.”
“Wonder if he’s of their caste.”
“His name is Agnivesh.”
“Did they care what we’d think?”
“Why couldn’t she conceive?”
But far away from the rumor mill they knew would start, the three of them sat inside the small cottage, having the simple rice and sambar that the maid had made ready before they came. Once that was done, they sat in the shadow in the front of the house, looking at the fading green reflection of the trees on the backwater and watched the little boy walk around the compound holding his small teddy bear. He had just found his feet, and was loving every minute of it, gurgling in delight when his parents spoke his name.
As night fell upon them and they retired for the night, they could hear a song from near the backwater. From their window, they saw an old man singing about the sea as he sat in front of a small fire, his family around him, eagerly listening to the tale.
It was midnight when Naveen awoke, perspiring and feeling very hot. Getting up to drink water from the earthen pot, he looked through the window. The pot fell from his hand, crashing to the floor as his mouth opened in a silent scream.
The trees around him were on fire. The people were running helter-skelter in panic, some trying to douse the flames with pots of water. He looked behind and ran toward Sreeja who still hadn’t woken up.
(© 7th April 2015)