by R. Bremner
It was clearly a revelation. When the sky turned dark, the truth was revealed to Josan. The one room mud house in which he sat now slowly cooled with the absence of the sun. The hot, damp evening would soon welcome the first soft breezes and mosquitoes of this day.
Across the small room, Anthony lay on his side breathing heavily. Drunk from arrack*. Drunk earlier than usual this evening.
(*arrack: a coconut-based liquor frequently brewed as moonshine in the rural villages of Sri Lanka.)
Savia-Pulle was no longer there to share the room, having fled his nephew Anthony’s beatings to find refuge in a faraway convent, so the villagers said, where he could do simple tasks for his rice and receive respectful treatment from the nuns.
Likewise, no longer did Ellis Amma, Anthony’s mother, live there. She too had escaped the young man’s fists, and gone to stay with some relative whom none of the villagers knew.
It was after those two left that Josan had come to live at Anthony’s house. Where he was from, no one in the village knew, but he was assumed to be some kin to Anthony.
There were rumors that he had been a bus driver, and had been fired for erratic behavior. To be fired by the national bus authority, as everyone knew, one’s behavior would have to far exceed erratic. Someone said that Josan used to stop the bus, with paying customers aboard, and go visit with friends who lived along the route, sharing a drink while the customers waited. Or deviate from the bus route to pick up and drop off friends and relatives like a limousine instead of a bus. But there was no substantiation for these rumors, and several others in the village said they had heard that Josan had served in the military, where he had received many blows to his head (by bullets or hand, no one could say) which knocked all sense out of him.
Now he stayed at Anthony’s house (actually Anthony’s mother’s house, a gift from a relative for whom Ellis Amma had worked hard for many years), where neither of them worked and both lived off the kindness of neighbors, for whom they would run small errands.
And now had come this revelation: Josan must save the village.
He had been told of a mad dog in the area. Josan had not seen the dog himself, but he had no reason to disbelieve. This mad dog had been biting all the dogs of the village, Josan had been told. Now all the dogs must be mad.
Josan must save the village before the mad dogs killed everyone. But first, before deciding upon a plan, he should have more arrack.
But how to get it at this hour? He would visit the gentleman recently retired here from the city, who had electric lights and plumbing, and offer to do an errand. The gentleman would always give a few rupees just to get rid of Josan, and this would be enough to afford some arrack after waking up the local boutique owner, who would likely be drunk himself at this hour. Then the plans for saving the village could be made.
Josan arrived at the gentleman’s house, just across the lane, and poked his head up against the barred, paneless window.
“Sir! Sir!” he shouted. “It is me!”
But instead of the gentleman, a little girl approached the window.
“Go away, dog!” she scolded. “Go or I’ll beat you with a big stick!” The girl was the servant of the gentleman and his wife. No one knew for sure her age, but the best guess was 13. She was too young to work by the laws of the nation, which said she must be in school until age 16. But her mother had removed her from the tea plantation where she had lived, worked, and ostensibly went to “school”, though the schooling was hardly meaningful and was not allowed to interfere with the harvest of the tea. Shanti’s mother had reached a deal with the gentleman’s wife’s sister for her to work for him here. And here in this good house in this village she received all the food she could eat and protection from the dangers of the outside world. The laws of the nation did not always stretch so far into the villages. The gentleman’s wife, a former schoolteacher, had even promised to teach her, though the lady soon gave up, declaring Shanti to be obstinate and unteachable. Yet the gentleman himself took up the task of educating Shanti and sat with her every afternoon to teach her reading, world geography, and even a modicum of math. Shanti would write feverishly in her notebooks and though she often forgot most of each day’s lesson, some of the learning was sticking with her. And Shanti was fiercely protective of the house and her employers. And she hated “the dog Josan” with a deep passion.
“Shanti!” the gentleman’s voice boomed from the rear of the house. “Who has come?”
“It is me, Sir! I have come.” shouted Josan.
“It’s that dog Josan!” said Shanti. “I’m sending him away, Sir!”
“Why has he come?”
“The dog must want money to get drunk!”
“No, Sir! No! I have come to run any errands you need.”
The gentleman was in the same room as the other two now. “That’s fine, Josan,” he said. “But I don’t need any errands now. It’s evening. Soon it will be suppertime.”
“Ah, then I can fetch you some sugar from the kade* for your tea, Sir.”
(*kade: a small market common in rural Sri Lankan villages selling a wide variety of items, from foodstuffs to pharmaceuticals.)
We have sugar, dog,” said Shanti. “Go away.”
At this time the lady of the house came from the kitchen. “Shanti, where have you been? Come help with supper.”
Shanti retreated to the kitchen at the back of the house, casting threatening glances at the visitor as she went.
“Wait there, Josan,” said the gentleman, as he went into the bedroom to draw some money from his drawer. Josan waited at the barred window. The gentleman returned and handed a five rupee note to Josan. “Get me some tooth powder,” he said. And keep the change for doing me this favor.” The gentleman did not need tooth powder but to just give money to Josan for doing nothing would have been a great insult.
Just as he was handing the note over, a small dog awakened from his nap and spotted the goings-on. Chundi flew growling through the air toward the window, and Josan only retained his hand by withdrawing it beyond the bars quickly.
Chundi barked ferociously and Josan mocked him loudly, which made the barking more intense.
“Go quickly, Josan!” said the gentleman. “I need my powder!” And so he left that place.
At the kade, some half mile away, Josan had to shout long and loudly to get the proprietor to come. A neighbor shouted back at him to quiet down, and the neighborhood dogs barked.
Sure enough, the kade proprietor was drunk. He exchanged pleasantries with Josan and fetched the tooth powder.
“And the master wants some arrack. Your special blend,” said Josan. He handed over the five rupees.
“That only buys a little bottle.”
“Whatever you can spare. You can give two bottles and put it on the master’s bill.”
The proprietor poured a careful measure of moonshine from a big jug into an empty Coca Cola bottle. “I’m sorry, I can’t spare more,” he said, knowing full well that the liquor was for Josan and not the gentleman. “I have very little left. There is no need to bill the master.”
Josan sat on the ground, outside the kade storefront. The proprietor joined him. There was no need to hide that the arrack was for Josan. And fortunately, it was strong enough that one needed only a few sips to feel its power. The proprietor extended his hand, and Josan gave him the bottle for a sip. It went on this way, and before the bottle was empty, both proprietor and customer were asleep in the deepening evening. The tooth powder was forgotten.
Josan awoke early in the morning to the bright rays of the sun. It was too early for anyone to be about except those on their way to catch a bus to the city for work, and those folks were fewer and fewer these days. Josan pulled himself up and headed back to Anthony’s house, as hens scurried about the fenced-in yards along the way.
At Anthony’s house, he showered at the well, behind a round brick wall. His plan was becoming clear. But there was one major problem: Should he kill the gentleman’s dog first or last? They loved their dog, but he could show them his value by protecting them from the creature. Chundi had bitten Josan numerous times, as had other dogs in the village, but there was something extraordinary about Chundi. While the other dogs of Henmulla all looked alike – short, long beasts with short brown hair and long snouts, Chundi was different. A city dog, an Alsatian mixed with a Pomeranian, a fierce ball of fur. In fact, he was probably a mad dog before the calamity of madness came to the village. Josan reckoned it would be best to kill the other dogs first, and display his prowess and reliability to the gentleman. Then the man would see how critical it was that Chundi also be killed.
Josan first approached the house of a family recently moved to Henmulla from the war zone to the north. Sure enough, as he approached the fence of sticks and chicken wire, a brown shorthair rushed toward him barking. Josan had picked a thick coconut branch and wielded it toward the dog. The dog stopped in his tracks, eying Josan with uncertainty. Then he moved cautiously forward, growling as he came.
“Who’s there?” a female voice cried. “Who has come?”
“It is me, Josan!” I have come to save you from your mad dog!”
“What nonsense is this? What are you talking about?” The woman came out of the house carrying a toddler boy.
“A mad dog has bitten all the dogs of the village. They will soon go mad and attack their masters.”
As the distance between Josan and the woman decreased, the dog’s barking increased. He did not like this man being near his mistress.
“This dog is not mad.”
Ah, but soon he will be. He will kill you and your child, and your child’s father, if I do not stop him in time!”
“He is not mad. Leave him alone.”
Josan had to demonstrate. He swung his club and the dog leapt, but not in time to avoid a hard blow to the left flank. The dog howled in pain and barked at the enemy.
“You see! He is showing madness now.”
“Leave him be. You hurt him. *This child’s father will be very angry. You better go now.”(* “This child’s father”: in the rural Tamil villages, it was considered overly familiar for a wife to refer to her spouse as “my husband”, or to speak his name. Hence the term “this child’s father” was common.)
What was the matter with this woman? Didn’t she understand anything? These village people are so backward. Josan, whose work with the bus authority used to bring him into the city every day, understood things as these backward villagers could not. He left her now and decided to have a think about this situation.
Josan needed some tea to think clearly. Though it was not yet teatime, his head needed further clearing. Since there was no money for arrack, he would go back to Anthony’s house and boil some tea.
As he drank his tea, Josan was able to clarify the issues at hand. There were two possible paths he could take. He could walk the village, killing any dogs that were running loose. Then he could display his work to the people and show them that he had saved them. But going up to an individual house to kill a dog was not a reasonable course of action, as he had learned by experience. The villagers were too ignorant to allow him to do his duty for them.
The second option was to go to the gentleman’s house and kill his dog. The man from the city would be intelligent enough to understand how Josan was saving him. He decided upon this action. The gentleman’s house had neither fence nor wall, and so he could wait until the dog was outside.
Josan sat under a coconut tree just off the dirt lane that ran past the gentleman’s house, with his branch close by his side. He had to jump aside once, when a bullock cart laden with freshly dried bricks from the brick factory came careening down the lane. The stupid bull did not even notice Josan and might have trampled his feet had Josan not moved quickly away.
Josan did not have to wait long for the gentleman’s dog. Soon the dog came bursting out the door on its way to who knows where down the lane. Then suddenly Chundi noticed the seated man and screeched to a halt. Who was this invader so close to his master’s house? Josan reached for his branch, but Chundi was too quick. The dog had recognized the invader by scent and movement, and charged at him before he could reach his stick. Barking as he charged, Chundi sailed through the air for the last meters and sank his teeth into Josan’s knee. The man screamed and reached for his knee, forgetting the branch which could have become his defense instead of his offense. Chundi bit again, then withdrew to bark imperially at the commoner who had dared invade his kingdom. Folks came running to see, as Josan finally got his branch and advanced on the dog.
First on the scene was Poomani and her teenaged daughter, who lived next to the city gentleman. Then arrived Stephen from the next house, whose Air Force captain father had mysteriously disappeared on his way to a special assignment in the war zone to the north. Soon all the women and any unemployed men in the village were there, witnessing Josan wielding his club while a ferocious little creature got angrier and angrier, louder and louder.
“Stop it, stop it!” shouted a female voice. It was the lady from the city.
“I’ll stop him, Amma!” said Shanti, her visage terrible with anger. But the lady held Shanti, fearing for the child’s safety as a man with a club faced an unfearing canine opponent.
“What’s going on here?” one of the women asked.
The dog must be attacking Josan,” said another.
Stephen said, “Josan what is happening? Did Chundi bite you?” But Josan was too occupied with the need to fend off his animal foe to answer.
“The dog must be mad,” said the first woman.
“No,” said the lady. “Leave Chundi be.”
You all know how he bites,” said Josan. “He is a mad dog.”
“You are the mad dog, dog!” shouted Shanti. “Go far away, dog!”
“It is true,” said another woman. “Josan has gone mad. He tried to kill my dog not an hour ago. This child’s father will punish him severely.”
Chundi was growing bored with these festivities. He ran to the nearest tree, peed on its trunk, and ran away down the road for more suitable adventure. His lady smiled. Her crisis was over. Josan stood confused, his club still dangling in his hand.
The woman whose dog Josan had hit now advanced toward him. “See him, mad and dazed. He is not even drunk. We must put a stop to his terrors.”
There was a murmur of agreement among the crowd.
“Let’s get big sticks and punish the dog Josan,” said Shanti. “He needs to be taught firmly.”
People began moving toward him. A look of terror came into Josan’s eyes. He started running to Anthony’s house, with perhaps twelve villagers chasing after. Some grabbed thick tree branches. He ran into the house, but it had no door. The villagers gathered at the door talking over their next move. Some were shouting into the house ordering Josan to come out. Stephen stood before the doorway but he would not be able to hold back the angry crowd.
At this time, the city gentleman, who had been napping, came out to the road and observed the proceedings. His wife quickly described the recent events. He apprised the situation immediately and addressed the villagers.
“Friends, leave this place now. The danger is over. I will explain to Josan and he will not do such foolish things again.”
Josan did not dare show his face. The villagers grumbled. “But he is a brute and an idiot, Sir,” said the woman whose dog had been hit. “My child’s father will beat him to the ground.”
“No, when the child’s father arrives home, send him to see me. I will explain to him. He is an intelligent man. He will understand Josan’s mental weakness.”
With that, the crowd began to disperse, going back to their homes and chatting about the badness of Josan. Shanti would have whipped them into a frenzy, but she dared not go against the wishes of her master. She was exceedingly disappointed that Josan had not been beaten, but she came back to the gentleman’s house.
Josan did not come out of Anthony’s house for the rest of the day, nor even in the night. The next morning he crept out in the darkness before the early risers were about, and bathed at the well. He had not eaten for a full day.
Josan remained in the house all that day also. Anthony snored away the morning and went out in the afternoon to ask neighbors for leftover bread and gravy from their lunches. Josan was very hungry, but Anthony shared no food with him.
In the early evening, with no candles lit in the house, there came a noise approaching the house. Josan sat up. A dark figure entered the doorway. She went to the table, felt for a candle, and lit it.
It was Ellis Amma, returned from who knew where. Anthony was out drinking. Josan spoke softly, not wanting to be heard outside the house.
“Have you come back? Where were you?”
“With the nuns. I shall go back tomorrow night. I want to give something to the lady.”
“Do you have food?”
“No. I eat with the nuns now. I have eaten rice.”
They fell into silence.
Much later, Anthony returned, fully drunk. When he saw his mother, an anger came over him. He spoke loudly to wake her.
“Make me some food,” he muttered. “I am hungry.”
“There is no food,” Ellis Amma said.
“Why is there no food?” he asked. “I told you I want food!” He advanced on her, holding his fist above his head. Josan woke up. He saw Anthony about to strike Ells Amma.
“No!” shouted Josan. “No!”
Anthony, startled, stopped in mid-strike. He stared at his uncle in astonishment. Then he snorted and went back to his task.
Ellis Amma cowered, her hands raised above her face. Anthony prepared to punch, but Josan grabbed his arm and swung him aside. Despite their almost equal size, Josan was much stronger than the younger man. Josan had spent much of his life in hard labors, while Anthony had never done a day’s work and had largely spent his life in begging and drinking.
Anthony attempted to punch Josan, but Josan knew how to fight men while the other didn’t. Josan deftly stepped aside, and clouted Anthony on the ear. Anthony howled and retreated. Then Josan remembered his stick which was to be used to kill dogs, and picked it up. Seeing this, Anthony trembled in his drunkenness. As Josan took one step, Anthony hastened out the door and into the darkness.
Ellis Amma had viewed the scene with quiet amazement. Never had any of her male relatives defended her against her son. Her brother Savia Pulle was too weak in the brain, and Josan never cared enough.
Now she regarded Josan. She rose and touched his arm. “Sit,” she commanded. He did so.
Ellis Amma went out of the house. If Anthony was out there, he gave no indication. She returned with a bucket of water from the well. She went to the cupboard and located a tin glass, then carefully poured it full of water and handed it to her brother. Then she went to the hearth in the back of the room and lit s fire. She poured water into a pot. She was preparing to cook rice and boil tea for her brother.