Down To Earth

Archie Iyer posted under Flash Fiction

“And son, one more thing..” “Yes, Baba,” answered Lokesh Jadhav, looking at his father on the laptop screen.  He was still wondering why Baba had called at that unearthly hour. “Your Grandpa is bedridden.” “What happened?”  Lokesh sounded alarmed. “Calm down, son.  Age related issues.  You know he’s eighty five.  Unable to walk since 2 days.  Grandma is 80 and is struggling to take care of him.  Aai and I and going down there.” “But Baba, he'll get proper treatment only in Mumbai, not in that godforsaken village!” “Son,” Baba hesitated, then cleared his throat.  “Grandpa is not in a treatable condition.” “What?” “Yes, my son.  Keeping him in familiar surroundings is best for his health right now.” Baba paused a moment, then continued, “Son, he’s been constantly asking for you.  Fortunately, you’re coming to India next week.” Lokesh listened on. “I say, why don’t you come over directly to your grandparents’ place from the airport? Our house here will be locked anyway.” Lokesh' eyes popped out.  “Alone to their village?  After all these years?”   Lokesh’ paternal grandparents lived in a remote village, where the approach roads were still narrow and unpaved.  They had always been an independent couple who loved their rustic way of life.  They would come over to Mumbai during Lokesh' school vacations, but resolutely refused to shift in permanently.   It followed that Lokesh had visited the village only once, as a small child.  He still remembered the bumpy ride in a rickety state transport bus and the narrow, rough path to the house.  And the doorless bathrooms.  And the cowdung cakes.  And cringed. Now, after 10 years of comfortable living in a distant land, the 32-year-old found it daunting to even navigate the streets of Mumbai in an airconditioned cab.  It was little wonder, then, that this was only his third trip to his homeland. Lokesh thought of his dear grandparents.  The rat race of the past decade meant that his connect with them had been limited to less-than-occasional, blurred and crackly video calls.  He always thought he would meet them someday, but never scheduled it.  The day had finally come.  Yet, the village? Baba broke his reverie.  “You can do it, my son.  I’ll reach there and send you the location pin.” “Baba, network problems?” “Yes, my son.  And you can still manage.” “Huh, okay Baba.”  There was no other option. “Okay, son.  Take care.”   “You too, Baba.” Lokesh turned off the video call and curled up under his blankets.  It was 2 am.  He had to get some sleep now. *** Chandrakant Jadhav shut down his laptop and turned to see his wife standing behind him. “Can he travel by himself to the village?” she asked. “He has to, Ranjana.  He’s grown up now.”   “Yes, but, you know.  The last time he came over, he couldn’t even stand the crowds at our marketplace.  And now to our village?” “It’s all our fault, Ranjana.  We’ve sheltered him too much.  Let’s undo it now.”  He smiled at her, hoping that his own concerns about his son were not visible on his face. It worked.  She smiled back. *** Lokesh emerged from the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai and was immediately assailed by the sounds and smells of the city, penetrating through his double mask and bluetooth earphones.  The honking cars, speeding vehicles, noisy people, wailing babies, vehicle exhaust fumes and dust added to the heat of the 1 o’clock sun and the jet lag of a sixteen-hour trip.  And now he had to hire a cab to- he looked up the Whatsapp chats with his Baba to recollect the village name- Shiroshipada. Baba had sent him the location pin, along with detailed instructions.  Reach the outskirts of the city.  Hit the highway and drive 30 kilometres to Shahapur.  Have a bite there, you’ll need it.  Then continue 27 kilometres on the same highway.  You’ll reach Manivali.  The village is small, but it’s located on the highway and has a weekly market right on the day of your arrival, so you should not miss it.  Then take the dirt road on the right, which ends after 5 kilometres, at the Sangam river.  There’s a small settlement around it.  Ask there for Gotya.  Leave the car at his house and pay him a hundred rupees.  Then cross the bridge over the river, then take the narrow path ahead for a kilometre or so, till you reach Shiroshipada. To Lokesh, the directions looked like a treasure hunt in one of those children’s adventure books.  Either he went home to the quiet confines of Dadar’s Hindu Colony and stayed alone for the entire week, or he took up the adventure and met his grandparents.  Family won. He popped into a restaurant and ordered a sandwich.  He googled for a travel agent while munching on it.  That was when he encountered his first hurdle. It was half an hour since he’d finished the sandwich, yet he couldn’t find a cab service that plied its vehicles beyond the extended suburbs.   Lokesh gave up and hired one. After two hours of crawling through dense traffic, the cab dropped him at a checkpoint in the suburbs.  The driver advised an irritated Lokesh, “You won’t find any taxi willing to drive so far to the interior.  Better hire a car you can drive yourself.” Nearly three hours after leaving the airport, Lokesh was finally driving a rented car, guided by the GPS on his mobile.  The right hand drive frustrated him, but he kept going.  The highway was well maintained and it was an uneventful journey till Shahapur.  It also calmed Lokesh to a certain extent. Little did he know what challenges lay ahead of him. *** Shahapur was a small town and fast food outlets dotted the wayside, catering to the tastes of the young city travellers passing by.  Lokesh ordered a takeaway from one of them. As instructed by Baba, he continued driving on the highway.  Barely a kilometre had passed when the landscape abruptly changed. Officially outside Shahapur limits now, Lokesh found himself driving on a narrow pockmarked road, with dense trees and bushes on both sides.  He cursed under his breath. He was now trailing a slow-moving state transport bus that appeared more like a clanging heap of scrap metal.  There was no space to overtake it.   Lokesh blared the car horn loud and long.  In response, he got a volley of curses from a passing biker.  He slammed his fist on the steering wheel in frustration. A couple of kilometres later, the bus turned into a bylane.  Lokesh heaved a sigh of relief.   He didn’t know that Mother Nature had more tricks up her sleeve. *** The skies darkened.  A fierce wind started, blowing sheets of dust on his windshield. Lokesh muttered under his breath.  He knew what would follow.  Unseasonal December rain.  It had to happen today.  Damn, I should have checked the weather reports. The GPS fluctuated, yielding to the pressures of an erratic cellular network.  Lokesh screamed at it, “Nooo, don’t conk off!”  And it conked off. The young man stopped his car and looked around.  There was no vehicle or human or habitation within sight. He pulled down the car window, eyeglasses and mask firmly in place.  A fierce gust of wind lashed past him, spraying dust inside the vehicle.  He held the phone outside the window, in the hope of finding a network.  It beeped.  He looked at it expectantly.  It was the low battery indicator. The fair complexioned youth turned beetroot red in anger.  Just then, he heard a bike in the distance.  He got out and waved madly at the flashing headlights. The bike sped past him.  It took him a few seconds to realise that the pillion rider had snatched away his mobile. “Heyyyyy!!” he screamed, jumping into the car and launching into a chase.   His inexperience in driving over a bumpy road with a rightsided steering wheel soon did him in.  But not before the thieves had led him through a maze of lanes and bylanes.   Now Lokesh was well and truly lost. *** Lokesh turned the vehicle around to find his way back to the highway.  He saw a fork in the dirt road ahead of him.  Which route had he taken?  He chose the one on the left. This only resulted in taking him farther into the bylanes.  Damn, he cursed, how was I to know this was a wrong turn?  I don’t have GPS now.  The wind blew harder.  He sighted a small hamlet and drove towards it. He saw a few people outside their homes and shops.  One youth was chasing a tarpaulin sheet that was flying away in the wind.  A woman was scolding and directing a bunch of kids into their homes.  A big branch of a tree had been felled by the storm on a kirana shop and the shopowner was on the roof, trying to push it down. Lokesh' intrusion in a four-wheeler was unusual enough for everyone to stop in their tracks and stare. The kirana shop owner jumped down and made his way to the vehicle.  Lokesh could not help admiring the strong, wiry body of the barechested man.  I must resume my workouts, he thought, unconsciously running his hand over his bulging tummy.   “Yes, Sir?”  The man smiled. Lokesh hesitated. “Are you lost?” Lokesh found his tongue.  “Um, yes.”  He wondered if the villager would understand his westernized accent. “Where do you want to go?” “I, er, forgot..” “Forgot?”  The villager guffawed. “I mean, I had the directions in my mobile phone, but two thieves on a bike snatched it and now I’m lost.” “Going to your native village?” “Right.  To my parents and grandparents.” “Take my phone and call them.”  The villager fished out a sleek smartphone from his kurta pocket. Lokesh' eyes widened in surprise.  But only for a moment.  He realised he didn’t remember any contact number.  The villager did not hide his amusement.  “Hmmm, young man, now you have a real problem.  Do you recollect any landmark?” He waited patiently while Lokesh thought long and hard.   “Yes.  A weekly market today..” “Manivali.” “Yessss,” Lokesh brightened up for the first time since he landed in Mumbai. He continued, “All right, young man.  I’ll give you directions.  Write them down.” Lokesh fumbled for a paper and pen.  The villager suddenly bellowed, “Chiman!!”  Lokesh jumped. A little boy emerged from his hut.  The villager shouted, “Bring a paper and pen!” The boy did as told.   The villager rattled off directions.  He even drew a map on the reverse of the sheet, which was quite a task given the fierce winds. And then he said, “Must you travel in this storm?  Stay back, go tomorrow.” “Stay where?” “In my house.” Lokesh was taken aback.  He mumbled, “Baba must be worried.  I’ll go now.” “Got anything to eat in your vehicle?” A woman who was desperately trying to cover a pile of cowdung cakes with a plastic sheet called out, “Wait, I’ll get you something.” Lokesh stared in horror as she entered a little hut and returned with a package wrapped in plastic.  Had she washed her hands? “Here, bhakri and bhaji.” She thrust it into his hands.  Not wanting to offend her, Lokesh put it in the backseat and set off.  He decided to give it away to some needy person and wash his hands once he reached home.  It was dark now and raining in sheets.  Streaks of lightning were followed by deafening thunderclaps.   Lokesh drove on.  He had little, nay, no choice.  Hopefully, nothing more can go wrong now, he thought. He was wrong. *** “Aho..” “Yes, Ranjana..” “It’s raining.  Lokesh should have reached by now.  Where is he?  Please call him.” Chandrakant Jadhav could no longer hide his concern.  He dialled his son’s number for the nth time.  It was switched off.  His messages remained unread.  The idiot must have forgotten to charge it yet again. He had another concern too.  His bedridden father was drifting in and out of consciousness.  Will Lokesh reach on time? “Will Lokesh reach on time?”  His mother echoed his thoughts. A feeble, yet jovial voice floated out from the bed.  “Yes, he will.  For one last time, I have to ask him the question he hates- when will you get married?  When will your grandma get to see your children? Despite the grim foreboding in those words, the foursome laughed. *** A few kilometres before Manivali, Lokesh' car ran into a particularly deep pothole and refused to come out. After trying hard for several minutes, an exhausted Lokesh raised his fist in the air, meaning to bring it down on the steering wheel in disgust.  He stopped midway. What was he doing?   But what could he do now?  He was in the middle of nowhere.     He decided to stay in the car and wait for someone to pass by.  He switched off the engine and opened the passenger side window just a little crack, to let in air.  And waited. An hour passed.  He dozed off and woke up when his stomach rumbled.  He knew he couldn’t handle the acidity if he ignored it.  There was nothing to eat.  Or was there? Hesitantly, he opened the packet of bhakris.  Hunger overcame all inhibitions and soon, he had devoured the tasty meal.  He felt better now. There was a tap on the car window.  “Stuck up, Bhau?” *** “Aho, I’m worried.” “Shall I send out the neighbour to look for him?” “In the rain?” “Let’s wait some more.” Ranjana went into the pooja room and prayed fervently for the safety of their only son. *** It was a man on a bike, wearing an oversized orange raincoat.   “Y-yes.” “Wait, I’ll push.  You start the engine.” But the muck was stronger.  The biker was back at the window. “Where are you going?” “Manivali.  And from there..” “Manivali’s nearby.  I’ll drop you.” “How near?” “Five kilometres.” Lokesh couldn’t understand if this man was joking.  Five kilometres is nearby?   “Whom are you going to meet?” Lokesh felt like he was being interrogated.  The biker continued.  “Don’t take it badly, Sir.  I’m just trying to help you.  There’s no village nearby and no one else would be out in this weather.  Just you and me.”  He smiled broadly, revealing paan stained teeth. “Well, I’ve to, er, take a dirt road from Manivali to a river bridge, then walk one kilometre..”  Lokesh was surprised to find his memory working. “Shiroshipada!” “Yesss, that’s it!  You know everything.” The biker flashed another toothy smile.  “Whom are you visiting?” “My grandparents.” “Name?” Lokesh didn’t mind the questions anymore.  “Vitthal Jadhav.” “Pradhyapak Vitthalrao Jadhav?”   “Ah, yes.  You know him?”  Lokesh’ face brightened.  His grandpa had been a professor at a well-known college in the area and commanded a great deal of respect in his heydays. “Of course, yes.  He taught me too.  Gave me a life, else I’d have been another wayward youth.  By the way, how is he?” “Bedridden.  Old age.” “Ohhh..  I want to meet him too.  Hey, by the way, does he know you’re stuck?” “Um, no, my phone has been stolen.” “Here, call him from my phone.”  He thrust a basic phone encased in plastic, into Lokesh’ hands. “I.. I don’t have his number.” “Wait!”  The biker made a call, then said, “We’ll get the number in half an hour.  Let’s start.  I’ll drop you.  Hop on.” “B-but.. if I’m drenched, I’ll be down with fever…” “Wear my raincoat.” “And you?” “How do you think I used to work in the fields, young man?  A little rain will not fell me.” “Helmet?” “No one here wears it.” “The car?” “Lock it up.  You can retrieve it tomorrow.  It’ll be safe.  Trust me.” Lokesh had already begun to trust him, though he didn’t know why. Five minutes later, they were on their way.  Lokesh held on to the biker for dear life as he expertly navigated the slippery, uneven roads. “My name is Santosh.  You?” “Lokesh.” “You from Mumbai, returning from a foreign country?” “Yes.  How do you know?” “Your accent.  Besides, you’re so delicate.” Halfway through the trip, Santosh’ phone buzzed.  “Ah, the number!” Lokesh marvelled at the turn of events.  At last, he could speak to his worried family. The duo reached the bridge.  The path ahead was so narrow that they had to walk one behind the other.  And very slushy. “Your shoes can’t stand this, Lokeshbhau.  Wear mine.  And don’t protest.  I can walk barefoot.” *** It was 11 pm.  The rain had stopped. Chandrakant Jadhav was standing outside the door of his father’s house, flanked by his wife and mother.  Half the village was awake and waiting along with them. Suddenly, the crowd spotted two men in the distance, coming towards them.  One of them had his face nearly hidden by a huge orange raincoat.  The other one was soaked and barefoot. “Hey, postman Santosh!” shouted someone.  The man in the raincoat was unrecognisable.  “Lokesh!”  Ranjana almost leapt with joy. “Idiot!” scolded Chandrakant Jadhav, tears streaming down his eyes. “I knew you would come, my son,” came a feeble voice from inside the house.  Or was it less feeble now?  “So tell me, when are you getting married?” Author’s note:  All persons and places in this story are fictional. Glossary: Baba:  Father Aai: Mother Bhakri:  Flatbread, usually made from coarse grain.  In the story, it’s made of rice flour. Bhaji:  Vegetable curry Aho:  Traditional form of addressing husband in Maharashtra  Bhau: Brother Pradhyapak:  Professor    Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!