Action of a Hand

The clouds have been breaking into rain every half an hour for two days now. I sleep under a massive banana leaf that gathers rainwater like cupped hands. The water rolls off the edges in a constant curtain and creates little crystalline waterfalls around me as I wait for the rain to stem off. Tiny rivulets course through the marshy ground that is my bed. Every once in a while the sun will appear, bringing with it sprays of rainbows through the drops.

            The pond to my left swells day by day. Women run outside with their laundry at first sign of the rain letting up. They joke amongst themselves and complain about their husbands as they beat their cotton saris and shirts upon the rocks. The flat sound is comforting to me because I know they will eat lunch in an hour and throw out some half eaten fish and old potatoes. Sometimes they will even throw out bits of rice and sour yogurt. Rice and yogurt is a dish that is dear to my tongue and close to my heart. Let me tell you about the first time I ever tasted it.

            It was in my second year. I was the seventh and last pup of the litter. My mother always seemed exhausted, her head bowed down at the thought of feeding her brood. Although I was not the smallest, I was certainly the weakest. I did not wish to fight my way into the feeding line and always was the last to eat, and consequently, received the smallest portion. Sometimes there was not enough milk left for my breakfast when my siblings had an insatiable hunger and their fat bodies shoved me from the line. I learned to pick up scraps of food when playing near a street vendor and pounce on a discarded ice-cream cone. It was thus that I was weaned much earlier than the rest of my siblings.

            One morning there seemed a great hustle and bustle around the city. There were children everywhere, pulling what looked like tall cardboard houses on wheels. I peered into one and saw small statues sitting in each compartment. Some children had quite massive houses that resembled temples and held races to see who could pull their house without the statues falling over and breaking. Being a small pup then with an excess of energy, I ran alongside the rolling houses, nipping at the wheels, delighting in the excited shrieks of the children. They did not seem to mind that I was the main cause of their statues tumbling over, and one little girl even bent down to stroke me. Her shining face looked so happy that I decided to adopt her as my pet project. I made sure to obstruct the paths of the other children so the little girl won two races. She jumped and yelled and clapped her hands, and I ran around her, barking a little in my joy.

            As the sun began to turn overhead, the children dispersed for lunch and afternoon naps. I followed the little girl through the twisting roads and alleys, stopping only to munch on a piece of cottage cheese and to scratch a certain flea behind my tail. She was singing a sorrowful tune in a trilling voice:

Oh my little tota[1] bird

I shall undo your chains

And let you fly away

If only you will bring

My mother back my way

Bring my mother back to me.

It was so beautiful; you would have cried if you were there.

The houses by the roads got smaller and smaller, sometimes consisting of only one room and a porch. She stopped at one of these porches and wheeled in her cardboard house. I stood outside and wagged my tail hopefully for her to come back outside and play with me but she did not return for a long while. I must have fallen asleep because the sun was a remarkable red ball falling off the edge of the earth when the girl returned with a clay pot full of watery rice and fragrant yogurt that smelled of jasmine. She smiled at me and set the pot down on the ground. I dove into the bliss.

I remained there with that girl for who knows how many days. It was only when the ominous black clouds began to pile up like mountains that my comfortable little life was torn apart. An old woman, perhaps the girl’s grandmother, hobbled outside one chilly night to pick some leaves from a mint tree growing by the wayside. I had not yet finished my dinner which was especially delicious due to the addition of a special treat: a salty yellow goat bone with some meat still left on it. The old woman saw this and started to scream at her granddaughter while pointing to me and yelling “Kutta! Kutta!”[2] It frightened me so that I bolted from the sound. I ran past the shanty town and past a red temple. I ran through the bleak twisting streets toward what I thought was home. Darkness piled up overhead like heavy stones. Out of nowhere, the night sky erupted into an orgy of light and sound, glittering explosions that held threats of both the sublime and annihilation. I ran past open tents and caught flashes of a black earthen woman with a serpentine red tongue lolling from her open mouth. She held bloody weapons in her many hands and wore a swinging necklace of human heads while people danced around her, playing an immense drum in an incessant beat: tak dhoom dhoom, tak dhooma dhoom. I ran even faster from this terrifying sight into the blackness of an undiscovered city, my mind reeling from the thundering earth, garish lights, and the red tongue.

The fiery explosions flowered throughout the night. I cowered under a building overhand while people ran around the streets in a drunken ecstasy. I fell asleep to screams and bursts and dreamt of a black earthen woman. The next morning I awoke to find myself bleeding without a wound.

 

The rain has let up. I love the scent of the metallic earth during the monsoons. It seems to rise out of the ground and imbue each moment with some secret knowledge of what comes next, the rustle of the palm trees like a magical conspiracy of nature. A porcupine rattles its glassy barbs as it shuffles from underneath a bush. Crows gather on the dipping power-lines. I squelch through the mud of this overgrown courtyard to lap up the greenish water from the pond. The surrounding bricks are slippery with moss and I must position myself very carefully so as not to tumble into the murky depths. The water tastes herby and sour, filled with plants. I finish drinking and look up at the world. The air is grey. Everything stands still for a moment.

Far away, a dog howls in pain or love. It sounds much like my own cries from many years ago when I saw a black dog chained up behind a gate. It must have been in my fifth year, when my family and I had lost all track of each other. That particular summer was unbearably hot. My days consisted of wandering around the city, scrounging and lounging underneath shadows. The shimmering heat scorched the pads of my feet and only served to punctuate my loneliness. In my search for clean water I wandered into a part of the city that looked rather unpolluted. The houses were much taller and were painted in rich glowing colors—cream, cobalt, saffron. Each house had an iron gate wrought with intricate designs that was shut with a padlock. From time to time a vendor pushed his cart full of sugarcane or roasted corn down the paved road, shouting of his ware. If he was lucky a child or housewife would come down from her shady manor with a crumpled up banknote to buy a glass of sugarcane juice or a salted piece of roasted corn. The sweet woody aroma made me yearn for something that I could not name. I found the black dog sleeping with his nose on his paws here in this paradise.

His short fur gleamed with health. Long pointed ears flicked away imaginary flies as he dreamt of…who knows? I dared to imagine perhaps a tan and white dog with a curled tail could one day inhabit his mind. His paws were long and powerful, as was his snout. The entire length of his body rippled with muscle and I wondered why such a dog was tied to a chain when he should be taking down bulls or conquering lands. The more I looked at this dog, the more the yearning inside me grew until it felt like a veritable tumor in the pit of my stomach. I laid my own unremarkable head down in front of the gate, nose to nose with the black dog and sighed softly.

The black dog’s rhythmic breathing stopped instantly and he opened his eyes. His irises were reddish brown, wild like a mad horse. The fur on the back of his neck bristled and he growled deep within his throat. All this happened so quickly that I did not have any time to react. He snapped his powerful jaws through the bars of the gate and nearly clamped it onto my snout. I whimpered wildly in confusion and scampered back toward the street. Completely awake now, the black dog pulled on his chain as he paced the length of the driveway, barking with a voice as robust as his mass. His teeth gnashed and foamed like he was guarding the gateway to Hades itself. I stood nearby to see if his

anger would perhaps subside when he saw that I meant no harm but it continued with such force that the ground vibrated with his rage. I remember walking away slowly and wondering if this was love.

 

“Taxi! Taxi!” I hear this cry every day, screamed in utter desperation by men and women who wave their hands frantically in the direction of big yellow cars that either swerve to their service or ignore them completely. Taxis are not like the triangular auto-rickshaw, always spilling over the sides with people, teetering like a spinning top. They are roomy and lavish, and apparently only men and women dressed in clean sober clothes can ride in them.

Having had my fill of pond water, I wander through rickety brick alleys until I end up on the main street where these taxis wait in herds, lining the sides of the road like massive yellow lions. Throngs of people course through the street, taking advantage of the clear weather. Dark men in white cotton shirts and pale poplin pants roll joints underneath store overhangs, dragging lazily from cigarettes dangling precariously from their lips. Women dressed in magenta and yellow saris hide their faces from the sun under black umbrellas. Colorfully painted trucks spray puddle water on pedestrians as they speed through the broken roads, jostling their cargo up and down. The city never rests, even during the monsoon.

A woman in a blue chiffon sari waves down an oncoming taxi from the middle of the road. With one hand she grasps her little son’s grubby hand and the other she stretches, as if reaching for an apple just out of grasp. The cars around her veer every which way, unconcerned with lane dividers. As she stands on the divide, I feel suddenly uneasy. For a split second a vibration rings through me that does not match with the surroundings.

A huge sound like a whale song approaches at the speed of light as an immense truck swerves madly through the street, trying to avoid the woman and child. I am horrified to see a black earthen woman painted on the hood, her tongue viciously red and long. The front wheel of the truck falls into a pothole filled with water and the truck swings to the right and hits the woman in the chest. She falls underneath the wheels as the little boy is ejected into the grid of cars that is now completely motionless in fear. He opens his mouth wide and cries from pain and confusion as people get out of their cars and mill around in front of the truck. A man drags the body of the woman from underneath the wheels. Her blue sari is nearly black with blood. I have never seen so much thick, oily blood.

The little boy wails in the middle of the street along with the crowd that is wailing together in one voice of grief and anger. The truck driver is entrenched in a bitter argument with a man who keeps pushing him up against the truck, hitting his shoulders in anger, his face glittering with rage. The truck driver is young, only a boy in a dirty t-shirt and shorts. Tears run down his face as he tries to explain himself through frantic hand gestures. Someone scoops up the child who is now crying “Umma! Umma!” The argument between the man and truck driver is getting more and more violent, they are throwing punches at each other. The man has wild eyes, like the black dog from long ago. He picks up a piece of cement from the ground and hits the truck driver in the head. It makes a hard sound. He crumples. Fresh red blood pours from his head. He does not move.

Turning away from the screaming and weeping, I walk around aimlessly for some time. I cannot properly explain to you, friend, the profound effect this incident has on my mind. There is a great feeling of sorrow in my heart for the way the little boy cried, for the way the truck driver died. As if mirroring my dark mood, the evening starts to roll in and I feel an enormous itch at the base of my tail. I contort my entire body around to chew out this itch, this excruciating prickle, but my muzzle does not reach. Black rainclouds gather like tubers overhead and I can smell the impending rainstorm. This part of the city is decrepit, always under construction yet it seems never to be finished. A hollow skeleton of a house looms above me. It is four stories tall but has no walls. With a rumble the sky crashes down in sheets of freezing rain and I run up the broken staircase to take cover in the gouged out building.

The floor is coated in a fine layer of cement dust. In one corner a heap of broken rocks create a massive shape in front of which I settle down for the night. Frequent mists of water wetten my fur through the darkness as I drift off into a dreamless sleep.

 

I awake suddenly to a peculiar sound. A strange snuffling and sniffing permeates the air and I make out the huge shape of another dog. He buries his nose in my hindquarters as I jump up and yelp in protest. Unfazed, he continues to follow me closely. I back away slowly toward the staircase, tripping over pieces of brick in the dark. But I am not quick enough. He jumps onto my back and mounts me from behind. For what seems like an eternity, excruciating pain stabs me with the sharpest spear and I feel a different kind of ache in the pit of my stomach, a physical manifestation of the paralyzing fear that keeps me rooted to the dusty ground. I hear it once more, the rhythm of the drums: tak dhoom dhoom, tak dhooma dhoom.

 

Many months have passed since that brutal incident. I awoke the next morning, bruised and humiliated, determined to find my way back to my banana leaf and sleep for a time without end. This was not to be, for I was lost in the labyrinthine structures of the buildings and bridges that make up this city, and I ended up in a shanty town. The itch at the base of my tail is getting worse and worse. I can barely stand it now. I roll around on the grass, against tree bark, even against sharp rocks hoping to find relief but there is no relief to be found. I suspect the culprit is the rather severe strain of mange that I have developed. Patches of my fur have fallen off and the sun burns the skin underneath. The air is hot now and my eyes are much more sensitive to the light than before. The volume on everything seems turned up to an unbearable degree. Even my dry black nose smells too much putridity, too many diseases running through the streets. All I want is for this cruel influx of information to stop.

I should mention that I gave birth some months after that night in the broken house. I toddled around for days and days with a swollen belly that dragged on the ground. I was treated better then, more humans gave me food than usual. I wonder if they felt a certain responsibility for my puppies being born into their vicious world. On the night of their birth, I was filled with a glowing hope of redemption, of release from loneliness. There is not much to say about that because all six of them were stillborn.

The shacks of this shanty town are low and have no doors. The roofs are just plastic sheets and the walls are made from old tires. Naked brown children run around the streets, their eyes rimmed in black kohl. Their arms and legs are thin and frail yet their bellies protrude like taut drums. I have been laying under this imli tree the entire day, wondering if there is any way to make my life stop, just end abruptly like a rope suddenly cut. Certainly I have thought about throwing myself in front of the cars that mill about the streets, but their slow speeds do not guarantee an easy death, or even a death at all. Living the rest of my life with a crippled leg sounds even less appealing than my current situation. I suppose I could refuse to eat or drink until I waste away but I know that something in my biology will keep me from fulfilling this plan. I see a little girl at the water pump and I see what I need to do. I wander toward her, looking unhappily at the ground. I refuse to look at her face. If I do, I will not carry my plan through. I secretly ask for her forgiveness in my mind and ask her to suffer through a momentary pain for the dissolution of my lifelong itch.

Barking madly to attract attention, I attack her ankle, sinking my sharp canines deep into the flesh. The little girl screams a shrill cry as three women rush over to her aid. I keep jumping at her face, growling and acting menacing while trying not to severely wound her. The women scream at me to stop, but this madness has taken over the muscles of my body. I could not stop now even if I wanted. One woman in a blue cotton sari picks up a sharp rock from the ground and hits me in the head. It makes a hard sound. I let out a howl of pain and crumple to the ground. Fresh red blood pours from my head. I do not move.

 


[1]  The most gorgeous green parakeet with a curved red beak

[2] Since then I have been called Kutta so often that I have wondered whether it isn’t my name. In any case, you too can call me Kutta.

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