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The beat of the jackal

Deepak Sharma

Tr.: Madhu B. Joshi with the author

Who was it that told me that jackals, foxes and wolves belong to the same species but the jackal is distinguished by its habit of wandering in dilapidated, abandoned ruins of old habitations?

Am I, too, a jackal who of late finds my mind wandering back to the old, abandoned Kasbapur I left forty years ago to settle permanently here in Vancouver? Why does the air of that town still ring in my ears Kunti's voice, 'Where am I required to make my signature?' Why does it bring Kunti here in flesh? Why does it take me to her?

In those days, 1975 to be precise, I was a technician in the X-ray department of a private nursing home where her uncle, Kishori Lal, had been a clerk at the reception desk. He had brought her to me, supporting her with his shoulder, with a prescription from the owner, the orthopedic Dr. Durga Das. Her ankle was swollen and I had to X-ray it from three sides.

“While cleaning the ceiling fan, my niece's ankle twisted and turned so badly that she can’t bring her foot down on the floor,” Kishorilal had complained.

All the three X-rays showed severe fractures. The joint where the long shin bone of her leg, the tibia, and the lower small bone, fibula, join at the end of the talus bone at the ankle, had shattered completely. The ligaments which provide stability and strength to bear the weight of the body were also torn.

Plastering her foot for six weeks, when Dr. Durgadas told Kunti to give complete rest to her fractured foot she gave Kishorilal a desperate look tinged with regret.

It was then that I learnt she was an orphan. Like me.

I had been rendered an orphan by the intriguing suicide of my parents. While my father's extended unemployment had led to his suicide, followed by my mother's, Kunti had been orphaned by her mother’s deadly tuberculosis and her father’s abandonment. My orphanhood had freed me from all family ties, Kunti had been compelled to give up her studies and work as a domestic help for her uncle’s sizeable family. My story had been different from hers.

At the tender age of nine, my maternal grandfather did take me in but neither my maternal uncle nor my maternal aunt ever considered me family. I too had never felt any love or affection for them.

All their attempts to rule over me failed and by the time I was fourteen, I had found a job delivering newspapers in the morning and evening. That newspaper routine proved very fruitful. That is how I had come to know Dr. Durgadas; and all thanks to him I learnt to operate the X-ray machine at the hospital. As soon as I learnt the ropes, I got myself fixed there, first as an apprentice and then as a skilled professional.

It was my skill with the X-ray machine that brought me to Kasbapur. When Dr. Durgadas retired from the hospital, he shifted to his hometown Kasbapur and set up his nursing home there. Having always been my benefactor he had readily agreed to take me there.

I might have been a total stranger to Kasbapur, but it was here that in the twenty second year of my life I found myself. For the first time in my life, I was just myself. Totally independent. Fully autonomous. I slept at night. Undisturbed. As long as and when I wished. I was the sole owner of the room whose rent was being paid exclusively by me.

I ask myself often how that very first meeting with Kunti had tempted me to make her my wife. What had bolstered my decision? Had it been her desperate look directed at Kishori Lal? Or was it her fulsome youth gushing out of her eighteen-year-old self which roused in me the desire to surrender my virginity to her at the earliest? Kishori Lal had had no objection to my decision and I married her the same week.

The next five weeks were the best days of my life. Filled with love and wooing.

Blissful. Gleeful…

All because despite the pain and the plaster on her leg, Kunti had taken charge of all household chores:

The bad days started with the sixth week of Kunti's plaster. When the cast was removed from her leg and her ankle had been X-rayed afresh.

One glance at the X-ray plate and Dr. Durgadas’ voice had turned sombre, “Seems the girl's leg did not get complete rest... the malleolus of the trajectory of her fibula and both the malleoli of her tibia have not set right. Realigning them is going to require surgery. Repositioning the ankle will now be possible only through metal plates and option but O.R.I.F. (open reduction and internal fixation).....”

“Well, set a date for the procedure,” I somehow managed to burst out just to inveigle Kunti. I was trying hard to control my fast heartbeat.

“I could do it tomorrow,” Dr. Durgadas's commercial side came out, “but I know it will take time for you to arrange the huge amount needed for it ….” Perhaps he knew that there was no provision for this in my agenda.

I can't really say whether my heart grew cold towards Kunti that same day or whether it turned cold due to her unbearable silence in the days that followed. My heart had stopped beating for her. Lackadaisical. Indolent.

That silence was not that of someone who accepts things for what they are. It was an accusing silence, the silence from an accuser accusing me of neglecting my husbandly duty towards her, thundering, bypassing our conjugal bliss, changing its path.....

To bear that changed path was unbearable for me. Impossible.

I could see only one way to get rid of her: divorce.

I mentioned a friend who was employed at a hospital in Vancouver and had arranged a job for me there.

I got legal divorce papers prepared by an attorney and set them in front of her, “I am getting a job at a hospital in Vancouver. I have applied for a passport …thought I should get yours made too. So I brought this form. You have to sign it…”

Without even checking them, Kunti broke her silence, "Where am I required to make my signature?”