Dayal’s auto rickshaw runs at breakneck speed, rushing through the heat and dust of Chava town. Quite unexpectedly, the rickshaw halts and the jeep behind it diverts to the right, barely avoiding a crash. The jeep driver sticks his head out, yells "Are you mad, bastard?", then drives off.
The rickshaw has run out of fuel. Dayal steps out and takes a can of diesel from behind the back seat. After filling the tank, he continues his journey. He has forgotten hunger and thirst. His mind frequently visits his old house, and always returns with grief and shame.
He had been a clerk under the Irrigation Department. A small family can live comfortably with a clerk’s income, yet he had remained bankrupt. He once had a dream – to become the district collector, a glamorous post. Though he tried twice, he failed utterly in the Civil Service Examination. His handwriting, slow and shabby, was the culprit. His father used to say, when you try to catch an elephant, you will at least find a goat. Dayal became a clerk. Now, the sorry figure of his father, always struggling to provide, flashes in his mind.
The tarred road ends. Dayal and his auto rickshaw have left the rest of the world behind. They enter a narrow path leading into thick forest as night falls. Crickets slay the silence. Headlights carve a way through the darkness. A deer jumps onto the path, stands and stares at Dayal and his rickshaw, dazzled by the bright light. Dayal waits for it leave, and continues.
After a while, the vehicle loses its pace and halts with a groan; its wheels are fully immersed in mud. Dayal is too tired to push it out. He puts his head on the handlebar and closes his eyes. Soon, he is asleep.
Sun rays fall through the canopy of leaves, scattering on the front glass of the auto rickshaw, waking Dayal from his dreamless sleep. He gets out of the vehicle, rubbing his eyes and finds a stream. There, he washes his face, then gulps water from the bowl of his palms. The coldness is refreshing. Finished with his morning routine, he goes, sits on a moss-covered stone beneath a huge teak tree. A breeze has started and the branches sway softly, slender as a woman’s arms. There is always a woman behind a man’s success, he thinks. He has read that in some book.
“Behind failure, too,” he mutters.
After his father died of liver-cirrhosis, he began shouldering the family’s burden all alone. Before long, his mother came down with rheumatism. She could hardly get up anymore, and Dayal had to take over the housework. He loathed cooking. Too late, realizes he how much he has taken his mother for granted.
Now he gets up, stretches. He has made up his mind to explore the forest. Down a narrow path, he spots a reddish-yellow mango lying beneath a wild mango tree. Suddenly he is reminded of his hunger, a clawing thing in his stomach; he picks it up quickly and devours it.
After making his way to the rickshaw, he lies down in the back seat and slips into a nap. When he opens his eyes, standing in front of him is a half-naked tribesman in a dusty dhoti. A bottle of honey dangles in his left hand. A woman, perhaps the man’s wife, stands nearby with a bundle of dried twigs on her head.
“Who are you?” The man asks.
Though he is reticent by nature, Dayal decides that he will speak. He tells them who he is, how he came to be here. They grasp human what he is saying, and invite him to their hut. He politely declines. They leave, but not before giving him a match-box.
“How could Simra abandon me?” Dayal settles back into the rickshaw.
Now that she is gone, he understands her at last. She had come from a well-heeled family – a pampered life – with a concept in her mind of a husband, the perfect husband, developed from her love of TV serials and Hindi movies. She longed for a fantasy life, as on the screen, and for a short while after the marriage, she was shy. Her beauty both energized and blinded Dayal. He followed her around like a dog wagging its tail.
“A husband should be a grave man, never a chocolate-boy,” his mother reminded him often, and he could not stand her words, her practical wisdom. She is jealous, he thought. Jealous of Simra. Back then he had been sensitive; his mind and face, pure and young, had captivated his young bride.
They did not have many happy days left. His meager clerk’s salary was not enough for her, for all of them. Soon their poverty, and his mother’s rheumatism, shattered his wife’s long cherished dreams and with it, their romance.
A few months later, his mother passed away. And Simra became a free bird.
Dayal is startled out of his thoughts by a wild, thunderous trumpet. Immediately, he pulls down the drop-down curtains of the auto rickshaw and peeps through a tiny hole between them.
Outside, it is drizzling. Large shapes move in the bush, their footfalls shaking the ground itself; elephants. A grizzled male with long tusks leads the herd. They pass by Dayal and his rickshaw, and through the tangle of grey trunks and stout legs, Dayal sees a baby elephant lumbering along with the rest of them. He stares on, breathless.
Soon, the elephants are gone, disappeared into the depths of the forest. Dayal curls up against the seat but he cannot sleep. Yesterday’s events have risen in his mind and this time, he cannot push them away.
Her father, a churlish middle-aged man, comes by early in the morning. He compels his daughter to take her jewelry, dresses and other belongings. She is poker-faced and obeys her father. Dayal watches all of this, frozen.
“I never thought things would end like this... yours is a wretched birth,” her father tells him as they leave.
A few minutes later, a black Ambassador car comes to his house with bank and revenue department officials, accompanied by a police jeep. Then start the loan recovery proceedings. Dayal’s body and mind burn with humiliation; a large number of villagers have gathered in the yard, watching. Some pity him, while others jeer, laugh, and scold. He cannot find a friendly face.
“We’re sorry. We have no other way. The proceedings here are finished,” the bank manager tells him. Dayal says nothing. He has lost his house and his land. His pride is steeped in shame. His wife is gone, his neighbours have lost all respect for him, and he misses his mother. There are things more horrible than death in this universe.
The bankers are gone by noon. Dayal takes out a brown leather bag, some clothes, and enters his auto rickshaw, the only thing of value he has left. As he drives, he cannot meet the eyes of the people he passes, the other drivers.
It is as if the whole world is watching, watching and laughing.
The tribal couple leave Dayal cooked tapioca wrapped in banana leaf. They often present him with wild fruits, edible roots, honey and the like. He learns from them how to find bread and soon adopts their ways, their secret philosophy – live today, forget yesterday and neglect tomorrow. The auto rickshaw has become his home. Day by day, his mind convalesces.
Saffron sun peeps through the twigs. Dayal is out for a stroll when he hears an odd noise. Moments later, a car comes nodding its head along the narrow path and stops beside him. A large man steps out, followed by his wife and a four-year-old son.
“I’m Denny, from Chava,” the stranger introduces himself. Chava is near his home village, Dayal realizes.
The other man explains. He and his family have lost their way while enjoying the charm of the woods. Dayal nods and points with his index-finger in the right direction out of the forest.
Denny is fazed. “Could you come in a sit until the route is clear for us, please?”
Dayal consents, and gets into the car. Though it is worn-down and untidy, Dayal’s remains unerringly polite; life in the wild has not altered his manners.
“Sir” Dayal points to the left. Five meters away, there is a tiger, pausing as it crosses to watch the car.
“Please don’t stop, and drive fast, sir.”
“What a trip, Dayal! I’d like to come back, without my family, later.”
“Everybody likes the forest,” says Dayal.
“I’m preparing a research paper on the wildlife here and I hope… that you can help me with it.”
“Yes, with pleasure, sir.”
Now they reach the tarred road. “We’re out of the forest. You can let me down here, sir.”
“O God! I forgot. How do you get back here?” Denny asks. He stops the car. “I intend to come back the day after tomorrow. So if you don’t mind, please come with us. You can stay in our outhouse, and show me the way when we return.”
Dayal does not decline, as he suspects that otherwise, it will take him many hours of walking to return to his rickshaw.
They drive for a long while. When the car reaches Chava city, Dayal asks Denny to stop the car. “Sir, I’d like to get down here. I would like to see your city and I will wait for you here, the day after tomorrow.”
“Very well, I will be here around in the morning… Please, take this.” The other man has taken out five hundred rupees and offers it to Dayal.
“No, sir. I cannot.”
“Take it, please. For being so kind. For food, at least, or whatever else you need.”
Dayal takes the currency and bows his head.
After sixteen long years, Dayal saunters along the roads of his home village, the early sun rising and its soft light nostalgic. The village has changed. A movie theater, a wedding-hall, a duplex, a barber’s saloon, an English medium school, metal towers and well-furnished shops have appeared, all put up during his long absence. The coconut leaf-thatched huts have been replaced with concrete houses. Nobody calls out at him, and he would hardly recognize himself if he walked by a mirror; a dusty copper colored beard has grown on his face. His body is hairy like a bear. His shirt and pants are faded.
Dayal recognizes one of his old classmates, greets him, hello!, but his classmate walks away quickly, avoiding his eyes. Dayal looks down and realizes that he has not washed in some time; he must resemble tramp.
He continues his walk, a stranger in his own village, where he was born, raised, and lived in for thirty-five years. Yet he wanders with the thrill of a boy at a carnival.
Twilight looms. Dayal is haggard and thirsty. Still he roams, looking around. He halts at a familiar street, enchanted at a two-storied house, an architectural beauty standing by the side of the road. A lady, neither young nor old, sits on the red marble door-step. Her hair is dyed with henna. Dayal walks up, opens the gate, and enters her yard. Up close, his eyes open wide. Sweetness runs through his veins.
She sees him, gets up, and goes into the house. A few minutes later she returns with some coins. She steps up and offers them to him, but he simply gazes at her.
He has broken the silence. His voice is charcoal, low and rough. Her eyes stare, widen, and glisten… then move away. The moment is ended. She goes back in and slams the door.
Slowly, silently, Dayal turns and leaves, his mind barren, where nothing grows.