Dogg looked at the clock. It lay in the lowest corner on the right hand at the bottom of a window on his computer screen. 11:14 p.m. A fan whirled on the top shelf of his bookshelf to the left, its gentle breeze comforting him. The house was silent. The children were asleep. So too, the wife. The tones of the violin in the Allegro non molto from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” played from the speakers to the right and left of the screen. Winter.
He had never seen snow, nary a flake of it. But he had an idea. Earlier, he had watched a programme on the Discovery channel about Kodiak bears. Autumn. A young bear plays in the water, catching salmon. The fish had swum upstream with joyful leaps against the tide. The inexperienced bear slashes at the water with its paws, claws extended.
A salmon flips over. It does not die with the first blow. Nor with the second. Nor the third. It flaps about, now between the paws of the bears, now in the water, the blood spurting from gashes. The bear is playful. It keeps at the game. Now he picks up the salmon and strips away a slice of skin and scales and flesh with his mouth. He drops the fish into the water and holds it there with a paw. Gently. The fish thrashes about as he chews.
The female Kodiak bear has mated. The seed had gone deep within. It stands to a side, chewing upon the flesh of another fish. If the female Kodiak bear does not eat enough and gain weight for the winter season, she will be unable to bear cubs. She must eat well and then the seed will grow well within. Otherwise she will have to wait another season to bear fruit.
As the winter season announces itself, with rain and sleet and wild winds and the first snow begins falling, the bears move towards their dens. There they will hibernate, throughout the winter. The young he-bear has been cast out. The other bears will not share their ancestral dens with him. His mother is the first to push him out, away from the clan, into the wild. The older, bigger males refuse to grant him a place beside them. Now he must fend for himself. The mountain slopes are covered with snow. The young bear begins a long march into a white wilderness. He must find his own den. He moves on, dragging his feet behind him, lured by the promise of the long sleep.
Dogg wanted to sleep. He could not. There were things on his mind. He had to write and he dragged himself along. The long sleep could wait. So he was writing. It seemed like crumbs to him. It would seem like dust to others. “Yet Lord, the dogs eat the crumbs at the Master’s table,” he thought. “O Woman, great is your faith. Be it unto you according to your faith,” he remembered. Dogg had read a book recently. It spoke of a god of small things, a god of loss. A black god named White. A god done to death.
Dogg was a journalist. He hated the job, its banality. The wages were fair. The technology state-of-the-art. His reputation was intact. But it was a sentence of death. The Achilles heel. The Place of the Skull. His job was to make note of appearances in the political, economic, cultural and sociological spheres and write about them. Illusions and lies. Lies and illusions. He had become a purveyor of maya. They said it was analysis, that he was good at it. He was well aware that he worked for the Shadow.
N. had said “Shadows have always frightened me.”
It’s alright, he would console himself. Work for the Shadow but love God, that became his understanding. God does not go by appearances, he judges righteously, Dogg thought. Sometimes, he would think of himself as God’s Dogg but he could never understand the meaning of a dog’s life. It was only slowly that he got used to it. He accepted it all whenever he said his name aloud to himself. Dogg. Dogg.
He had finished with complaining. It was just that he did not understand. There was the long promised sleep. It never came. Not yet. He feared the sleep but longed for it and worked towards it. What would it bring? He plodded on across the snow-swept slopes, his footprints leaving their marks behind. He did not turn around to look at them. They were under the sign of erasure. If he looked behind, he would have beheld nothing. Not even a ghost of a trail. Truth is a pathless land, he remembered, and grimaced as he put his snout down to the ground and ploughed on.
He had his kennel though if not a den. The Master had always taken care of him. He had always had enough to eat. The bitch too. And the pups. In the afternoon, they gamboled with him. Last night, she had lain with him. He had a good coat of fur. She did too. Sharp eyes and teeth. He knew how to crawl, walk and run. He had been trained well. He had a good bark too; every bark spoke volumes, put the others on the alert. He lived to please the Master. His tail would wag with gratitude when the Master threw him crumbs, fat crumbs.
When he was younger, much younger, he remembered going to a house where Death had made its entrance. It seemed to him that it was his body lying there, dark and cold and still in the sleep of sleeps. His mother was weeping. Her sister was married to a Marthoma priest. His sister too married a Marthomite. This sect is concentrated in Central Travancore. More than a hundred years ago, the winds of Reformation swept by. The Anglicans breathed out that spirit. Many Syrian Orthodox Christians, who traced their roots to Antioch where “the disciples were first called Christians”, breathed in that spirit. It led to schism. The churches were torn asunder by strife over doctrine, rite, ritual, liturgy and, most important of all, property, priestly position and power. The Marthoma Church was born.
Between Pullad and Kozhencherry, at Maramon on the sandbeds of the river Pamba, the reformed faithful gather every February. In the beginning, they cried out unto the Lord. Those simple people living in small huts and earning a livelihood under the curse by the sweat of their brow came to Maramon having walked miles or rowed miles down-river. At the convention, they would repent of their sins, renew their covenant with the Man who lived under the sign of erasure, and return to daily life.
Once, under the gigantic thatched pandal beside the softly flowing river, the people were afraid. Black thunderclouds crowded the skies. The monsoons in Kerala are terrifying in their beauty and strength. If it poured, the people knew, there would be a flash flood breaking through the bunds. He who fears erasure seeks miracles. The Metropolitan was a holy man. He commanded the people to stand still and, even as it began raining, he prayed. “Do not move, the Lord will act,” he said. The waters poured down but they rose no higher than the knees of that praying mass. He who fears erasure will see miracles but will have no part in the Resurrection of the First Fruits.
In the old days, the preachers at Maramon would shout out their message sentence by sentence. Men stationed down the lines would repeat the sentences aloud, relay it down the line, the words would reverberate throughout the thatched enclosure. And it was not Chinese Whispers. It was accurate, the Word-baton passed on in sacred exactitude.
Once it happened that a particularly charismatic preacher was present. He stood up to speak and then there was a mighty hand choking him. An awesome presence filled the pandal. The preacher fell to his knees weeping. He had committed adultery and suddenly knew that he could not be hidden. With a loud cry he confessed his sin. The people were amazed and fell to their knees. When they got up, they shunned the preacher as though he were a leper. “Outside are the dogs.”
Dogg wondered about the rejection of the saved sinner. But his uncle came to his rescue. “My son, the preacher found true salvation but those who could not forgive the one whom God had forgiven, who can tell what their judgment will be!”
Dogg duly visited the Maramon Convention when it celebrated its centenary. It was part of his job. It was a big affair. Big cars, big people, big plans. He felt suffocated in the midst of a people grown rich and fat and vile. The Maramon Convention had become a festival of Mammon. The simple folk had become sophisticated; simple cottages and huts had turned into ugly, marble-floored mansions. The Church’s One Foundation had become Petrodollars and Pride.
As he stood there watching the priests in their white cassocks herd their flock into that ancient pandal, he had a vision. The river was dry. Fire swept the thatched roof. People prayed aloud with upraised arms as they scattered in all directions. The cries of the children trampled underfoot by those running away mingled with sirens and the clanging bells, not of the old church building at Maramon where the schismatics first broke bread together, but of fire engines.
The Sign of the Bear over against the Sign of the Fish.
Across the sky he saw written three texts.
The first read: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The second read: “They are grown fat, they shine; yea, they pass over the deeds of the wicked. Shall I not punish them for these things?”
The third read: “If you take forth the precious from the vile, you shall be as my mouth.”
Each time the words appeared, a giant paw with claws extended appeared soon after and erased what was written.
But in that House of Death, he had felt a presence, a cool breeze swept through him, a Spirit. The Metropolitan, the archbishop, arrived to say the final prayers over the body of the priest. The dirge they sang moved him to tears.
“If the Lord should put into my hands the cup of sorrow, with joy will I receive it and sing Alleluia.”
The coffin was taken out of the high-ceilinged living room. His grandmother, mother, the widow and her two daughters and their mongloid son, his uncle, they wept unashamedly.
Dogg’s heart was rejoicing. The Spirit did that, he knew.
The Metropolitan moved about, his long white beard undulating in the breeze and his broad forehead glowing with a fatal radiance. He held his hand out. Upon it was a signet ring, a sign of authority. The faithful came up to him and bowed, he gently touched their foreheads with his ring, blessing them. A heavy, silver cross hung around his neck like a millstone, emblazoned upon his black robes. Soon it would be his turn.
Dogg heard a call within as he kissed the signet ring.
“I will be a bishop one day,” he told his mother.
“May it be so, son,” she replied looking at him strangely.
But he was Dogg, only a journalist, in the end. Mother died of a broken heart. Dogg did not weep. That abnormal rejoicing was in his heart.
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.”
He was good at his job. So his editor asked him to visit the village where it was said the god of small things lived and died. He had died at the hands of these very Marthomites. The community had inoculated itself against him, wrote his chronicler. The book was untrue to the conditions within which a text is composed, the critics said. Find out about these things and write a piece in 1,500 words, his editor said over the telephone. Get some pictures too, he added.
He wanted to discuss the book, its author, her intentions and style with somebody else. Is it not written somewhere that in the multitude of counsellors is wisdom? He had already gone through all the articles which had appeared in the press about the book and its author. He was dissatisfied with it all.
He rang up his friend, an award-winning journalist with a string of investigative reports to his credit and a reputation for being a master of style working for an upcountry magazine whose literary editor also happened to be the publisher of the prize-winning book. He was all praise for it. A breakthrough, he gushed. Exceptional, he pressed home his view. It seemed to Dogg that his friend was repeating parrot-like the phrases printed in the magazines.
“I am writing a piece on this book. I wish to contradict the common opinion,” Dogg said.
“It is not enough to dissent,” the journalist replied. “You must have proof.”
“Read the text. The proof lies there,” Dogg said.
“You are entitled to your personal views. They do not count. The prize does. The opinion of the majority and the money goes against you,” he countered.
“The majority is the anti-Christ. My opinion will be in print. It makes all the difference,” Dogg said.
“Your article, it will be just sour grapes; the critique of a wannabe writer who has not made it,” he retorted, provoked. “Let’s end this discussion here. It’s pointless.” His friend slammed the phone down.
A week later, Dogg read his friend’s article on the mother of the writer. A social activist and educator of sorts, honour her, he wrote. But her daughter’s book mentioned nothing about these things. It only spoke of the mother as the clandestine consort of the god of small things. Ah, that precisely is journalism, Dogg felt. Sell the writer and her mother. This harlotry is legal and highly profitable.
The customers are many. But it is all merchandise under the sign of erasure.
Dogg caught an early train. When he reached Kottayam, his will failed him. He decided to avoid the village-shrine of the god of small things. He would not meet those whose lives had become part of a text and an element in a marketing strategy, he decided. He did not want to ask them what they felt and why and how much of it was true. He did not want to telephone the writer’s mother seeking an appointment for an interview. He felt a loathing for it all. He hung around a telephone booth. He dialed her number several times. Each time he heard the telephone ringing at the other end, he disconnected the call.
In the end, he decided to wander about Kottayam. To hell with the politics and sociology of literature, he thought. To hell with journalism, the livelihood of the scum, the pariah dogs, the merchants of the Medium Cool, who translate the literary into the literal, he said to himself. Outside are the dogs. Outside the text there is nothing.
“The wise do not grieve the dead, they have found a better place.”
A friend had inscribed these words from the Bhagavad Gita in his autograph book long ago.
“Kill them all, it is your duty, they are all dead anyway,” Krishna advised Arjuna before the Battle of Kurukshetra.
They are all dead, the village, the living ones, the animals, the Meenachil River, he thought. They are alive only between the pages of the book. But the text itself is under the sign of erasure, he reminded himself. All who invested in it had their pockets picked, he felt. He would be able to write the article without even going to the place or meeting those characters. That they existed in the book was enough. Whether they lived or died between the covers of the book, time would tell.
But what about the photographs he was supposed to take or get somehow? He wound his way to the offices of a leading Malayalam daily. Yes, the pictures are available, the News Editor said. There had been a major blaze in a shopping complex in the early hours and “all our men are out there gathering information, clicking photographs …we sell ten lakh copies, you know,” he said. He was taciturn, in no mood for conversation.
Dogg followed a peon into a chill, air-conditioned room where machines whirred. Scanners, computers, printers. Within minutes, the pictures had been scanned and transferred onto his floppy diskettes. Dogg quickly left that office which reminded him of his own office. These new offices, automated, wintry hellholes. No good for any bear or dog seeking the long sleep, he thought.
Dogg decided to take a look at the burnt-down commercial complex. There were three red fire engines parked amidst a large crowd. Firemen were splashing through mud on the street and bringing out huge charred bundles of rubber mats and slippers. The stench of burnt rubber hung in the air and smoke spirals ascended under a hot sun. Policemen kept pushing back the crowd which was seeking to surge forward across a barricade of bright, yellow plastic ropes. There was a strange heat in the air.
He went around to the back of the building, having flashed his press card at the policemen. There were three workers sitting on an empty crate and passing a bottle between themselves. “Would you like some?” one of them asked. “No, thank you,” Dogg replied.
He walked away from the soot, the smoke, the mud, the din and bustle. He headed for the railway station through a bylane. A woman dressed in a bright blue saree stood beside the road. Her son was urinating into a gutter. She held his tiny penis in her hand, shook the drops from it once or twice and tucked it back in under his shorts. Dogg smiled and she looked up at him. She smiled back. She had gleaming white teeth, even and set firmly.
“Do I know you, sir?” she asked.
He did not know what to say. She sidled up to him.
“I think I have seen you hereabouts before,” she said.
“I don’t know, perhaps,” Dogg replied. There was a shimmering in her eyes that made him think sexual thoughts. He made as if he would move ahead. She fell in step with him.
“Could you spare me some money?” she asked.
“I have to take him to the doctor. He has asthma.”
“How much do you need?”
Dogg pulled out his wallet. She peeped into it.
“If you could make it a fifty, that would be wonderful,” she suggested.
He looked at her. Into her eyes, at her breasts. Not much there. The blouse she wore was conservative blue. Upon her neck was a thin gold chain with a tiny cross. His eyes travelled downwards, to her stomach. Light brown skin. A lean woman with a bright, wide smile. She seemed embarassed.
“I can give you only twenty rupees.”
He handed her the money.
She walked alongside him. He was tempted to touch her. To see how she would react, to find out if she was a prostitute putting on an act or a woman willing for a shilling.
“Where do you live?” Dogg asked.
“A few kilometres outside Kottayam,” she replied.
“Where’s your husband?”
“He’s a useless man,” she said. “He’s a drunkard. He works in Mundakayam, comes home once in a way to lie drunk at home. It is hard to look after the child.”
The little fellow was trotting along silently on bare feet.
“Thank you for your help. I will pray for you,” she said.
“Which denomination do you belong to? Are you a Roman Catholic?” Dogg asked.
“Yes, I attend every Mass at the Devagiri church,” she said. “I will say a prayer for you, it is God who lets good people meet.”
“Here is a restaurant. Did you have any breakfast?”
“Shall we have tea together?”
Dogg entered the restaurant. She followed behind with the boy. Suspicious eyes greeted them. She was the only woman there. And Dogg was too well-dressed not to be noticed. A waiter ushered them into a cabin.
She sat down beside him. The child sat across the table, opposite him.
“What will you have?” the waiter asked.
“A soft drink for the kid and two teas,” Dogg told him.
“Will you have something to eat?”
“Does he beat you?”
“Him? That good-for-nothing?” Her lips trembled. She drew herself closer to him. Their elbows touched. The waiter arrived with the tea and soft drink. He poured the soft drink out into a glass for the child and handed him a straw.
“He likes cold drinks,” she said. Again, that flashing smile quickly replaced by a cloud across her face. He was tempted to put his hand around her.
“He wants a toy, a bright red wooden bus he saw in a shop window,”she said. “It costs only ten rupees.”
He nodded. They sat in silence and finished their tea. He paid the bill.
Outside the restaurant, he took out a ten-rupee note and put it in her hand.
“Buy him his toy,” Dogg said.
“Are you married?” she asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“Please don’t misunderstand me. It was an innocent question.”
“Yes, I have three children, two girls and a boy.”
“How old are they?”
“The eldest is nine, the second is five and the third, the boy, is three.”
“I will never forget you. Do you think we’ll meet again?” she asked.
“No, you and I are under the sign of erasure,” Dogg replied.
“Goodbye, I think we will meet again, somewhere, somehow. Now I must go and get him his toy and take him to the doctor and return home,” she said.
Dogg watched her as she picked up her son and walked away. He wanted to call out to her, to spend the whole day with her. His tongue was tied. With slow steps, he walked towards the railway station. The train was late again, as usual.
When he reached home, he sat down to write his journalistic piece. He needed that book to refer to. Where was it? That text about the god of small things was missing. It soured his mood. Who could have taken it? It was hardbound and he had paid Rs 395 for it. It was sold out so it would not be easy to get another copy immediately. There were people around who would not mind stealing the book to read it. Who could have snitched it?
He spent the next hour in a foul temper. The book had done the disappearing act. Damn it, he needed it to borrow some quotations from it for his article. He rang up friends who had visited his home recently.
“Have you taken my copy of the book?” he asked each one.
No, they replied one by one.
Then he remembered N.’s words. “At 76, after a lifetime of reading, what remains? These artists are sold out to Mammon, to Big Business. The critics now want to be artists. So they speak of texts and things. Tiruvalluvar wrote long ago that there is the top dog and the underdog. It has always been so, it is so and it will always be so. What remains at 76? The Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Bible, Homer, Dante, Tolstoy, the Tirukkural. A handful of books, a handful of texts. As for the rest , who knows? And then, you know, memory fails. When one dies, what remains of all that one has read?”
Slowly he grew reconciled to the fact that he had lost his personal copy of the book about the god of small things. Dogg looked at the clock in the window of his computer It read 1.23 a.m. Time enough for the long sleep, he thought. The compact disc player had long since ceased piping Vivaldi’s tunes. He opened his window. It seemed to him that it was snowing heavily in the darkness outside. He switched on the television. Snow on the screen. He shut the window. Had the bear found its den, he wondered.
“I forgot to ask her name,” Dogg said to himself.
And she never asked him his name, he realised.
Dogg felt supremely happy.