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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Short Story Gone Long: Kafka on the Floor

Note: Before you start to read this story, let me say what follows is an act of self-indulgence. Like my previous attempt at writing fiction, this is long. As in, looooooooonnnnnnng. Some of it is autobiographical, some of it is made up & some of it is a mix of both. That being said, the idea behind it was deliberately given free rein & so maybe the length got a bit out of hand. But I've tried to put a bit of heart into this & I hope you find it too.


First there was just me. And then there was Kafka.

Maa has never been much of an animal lover, but she does love birds. I know that for a fact because since the time I was a kid, I was used to hearing my name called out from the balcony just when I was about to lose myself in a book. Now it so happens that this banyan tree right across the yard was the abode of many birds, such as black and white cormorants (two different species of the same bird, mind you), cranes, the common ones like crows, magpies, nightingales and mynahs as also the occasional screeching-but-never-too-visible parrot. At first, it felt irritating to be made to rush from one end of the flat to another just to 'appreciate the gifts of nature' but over time I have come to develop a grudging affection for the flying species.

This balcony is also the site of another of Maa's passions - gardening. Incidentally, this was exactly where we made the acquaintance of Kafka.

To water her plants everyday, she filled this small bucket and poured water onto those green beings and whatever was left of it after they had had their fill, she poured it into this small plastic bowl which was occasionally used to keep those tiny crystals of manure she bought from the nursery.

So one fine day, I remember hearing the sound of footsteps getting louder as if coming towards my room (the kind when someone's walking quickly and trying not to make a lot of noise) and before I could turn my head to see who or what it was, Maa comes rushing in & says, "Get up, quick! I have something to show you. The other balcony, now!"

I hurry behind her and just when I'm about to walk into the balcony past her standing near the doorway,, she grabbed my hand and pulled me back before whispering into my ears, "Look at the bowl!"

And then I saw it. A crow perched on the marble slab of the balcony wall with its back towards us, plucking some water out of the bowl with a quick nip (or dip, whatever it did with its beak) and then raising its head as if looking at the sky, as the water slipped down its throat into his bowels.

Now imagine my predicament at that very moment - I had been made to get up to come watch a crow quenching its thirst just as Jane Eyre was about to go on that walk with Mr. Rochester and romantic tensions between the two were simmering like anything. Disappointed big time, I walked back to my book without offering any comment, fearing saying what I really felt would provoke an unnecessary argument and hurt her feelings. Unaware of this, she followed me into my room and said, "It would be quite nice if birds come to our balcony like that, wouldn't it? Like people feeding the pigeons." I nodded of sorts and eager to get back to Jane Eyre I remarked, "Maybe he could be your version of Kakeshwar Kuchkuchey or my version of Speedy."

Before I proceed with the story, a bit of digression into the lives of Kakeshwar and Speedy. Both happen to be fictional characters and unconsciously the reason for the affection Maa and I have for crows. Kakeshwar Kuchkuchey, in Maa's words, is the "clever, calculating and cunning crow" from the Bengali short story "Hajabarala", Sukumar Ray's classic tale filled with absurdist humour. (Maa always seemed to used those three adjectives to describe KK. I learnt much later in school it was a figure of speech. Which one? Go figure.) And Speedy is the protagonist of Ruskin Bond's short story "A Crow For All Seasons", a hilarious one about a crow who lives on a tree at the edge of an Anglo-Indian family's house.

Getting back to the story, Maa decided to keep two bowls filled with water instead of one, perhaps to attract more crows to our balcony. The next day, however, we had no crows in our balcony. Unfortunately for Maa, I thought, she might have overestimated the crow's intellect based on her experiences with fiction.

But the day after, it was there again. I was going to the balcony when I saw it standing on the marble slab, having a drink. And the crow is a pretty fearless creature - it was aware of my presence (it seemed to look at me, so) and it didn't even blink an eye and fly (atleast I thought so) through the grill until I had gotten really close to it.

I went into the kitchen to find Maa and tell her about the crow. Her face seemed to light up as she heard this and she replied, "Well, we better choose a name for him now that he's started to come regularly." Seriously? It had not been two days in a row that the crow had been coming and here we are, deciding to have a name for him. Maa relented a bit but was in no way affected by what I felt. She said, "Well, if he comes tomorrow to drink water from the bowl, we will do the naamkaran. What say?" Fine, I said. So be it.

I wondered if Maa would place a third bowl of water alongside the two already there, as an extra incentive of sorts. It also made me wonder why she was doing all this for the sake of some crow who happened to drop in twice to have a sip. Now that I think about it, I was a bit too young to understand the phenomenon of 'bringing out the child in someone'. How could a child bring out a child in himself, after all? But now that I have grown up a bit, I have learnt is that whenever you see an otherwise perfectly normal adult doing something out of the ordinary, we should not judge them for it and instead just let them be, soaking in some unadulterated happiness in the unusually dull lives they often lead.

Coming back to the crow, I don't know why but I was half-hoping it would come the next day, maybe to liven things up a bit. But the whole day passed, we waited and it didn't seem to come. And then, as the sun was about to set upon this part of the world, surprise - it was back. As if he had heeded what Maa had said earlier and raised the suspense quotient a bit before making his appearance and cawing, "Yo buggers, here I am, eh? Cheerio."

Thanks to the crow's dramatic last-minute cameo that evening, I had to half-heartedly take part in the enticing activity of naming the crow. Maa wanted to name it KK (in short for you-know-what) and I too made a show of being interested, turning down her suggestion out of hand. I didn't want to call him Speedy since the crow obviously had none of Speedy's awesomeness, atleast until that point. I thought of the Thirsty Crow - the one from the age-old fable - but calling it Thirsty seemed inconvenient and I didn't dare to suggest it. Too bad I didn't have an internet connection back then, otherwise I would have just turned to Google. Not that crow names are similar to baby names, anyway.

And the solution was found in - guess what - fiction. At that time, I was reading this really weird book by some Japanese author with a fancy name which had a teenager running away from home, talking cats, fish raining out of the sky and what not. Now there was this bit in which the teenager I mentioned renames himself as Kafka, who I remember reading as some weird European guy who wrote weird stories. All in all, Kafka also means 'crow' in Czech (atleast the book claimed that) and I told Maa about this, who seemed happy enough to see I was interested. So that's how the crow came to be called Kafka.

The odd thing is that both Maa and I here assumed that the crow was male. How does one tell, anyway? And given how things are in today's world, would that be termed sexist?

By the time the crow dropping in for his daily fill everyday, I once found one of those tiny marble balls on the way back from school and not knowing where to put it, I dropped it into one of the water-filled bowls and forgot all about it till that evening, only to discover that the ball had vanished. I asked Maa if she had seen it but she claimed to have no knowledge of it and even admonished me for picking up things off the road just like that. I was about to don Sherlock's hat to investigate the Case of the Missing Marble when Maa suggested, "Maybe the crow took it." How was that possible, I asked. He was there in the afternoon and she saw him, she said. As if she recognized him, I mildly sneered not knowing what to say. But she did, she would tell me some other day when I was not being upset. What nonsense, I thought. But whatever had happened with Kafka so far, everything had felt quite extraordinary.

The following day, I come home from school only to find my marble ball, but in the other bowl - not the one I had dropped it into the day before. I put it back where I had originally put it, thinking if Kafka would be interested in playing games. But nothing actually happened and the ball remained right there. Maa proposed a theory that Kafka might have thought it to be something edible but having found it hard to crack, had been honest enough to return it the next day. She thinks as if I'm still as gullible as a four-year-old, I thought. However, for want of a better theory, the case was closed.

As much as Maa seemed to love Kafka, things were not rosy all the time. Two instances come to mind here when Maa got really pissed at that crow of ours. The first time was when I came home to see Maa sitting, looking a bit sad, a bit angry. I asked her what the matter was and I could see she was seething as she said, "That crow! I give that darned creature enough water to drink and he goes on to destroy another bird's nest." What had actually transpired was that the crow had actually ransacked a tailor bird's nest on the almond tree that grows a few feet away from our balcony in search of eggs and Maa had even tried to stop the crow from doing so by throwing stones at it even as the helpless tailor-bird could only sound a never-ending distress call on a distant branch. I tried to imagine what it would look like Maa stoning a crow she seemed to love only till yesterday when she said, "Enough of that crow. No more water for him from now on." How do you even know it was him, I queried. Pat came the retort, "I don't know how my son turned out to be like this? You see, but you do not observe. Can't you see that streak of grey right at the top of his black head? Like the one Aamir did in that film in which he was bald. See for yourself if that crow comes again. Not that I am gonna be good to him anymore."

For the next couple of days, Kafka came, Kafka saw, but Kafka did not conquer. But I did manage to see what I wanted to - Kafka did have a bit of the Ghajini-hairstyle on his head. The lonely marble ball lay in the middle of the empty bowl, as if it were the only remains of a dried-up oasis. On the third day, however, I saw Maa filling those two bowls, pouring water from the bucket. So you do have a heart, I attempted a wise crack at the situation. She turned towards me and her grim face instantly made me want to take my words back, but all she said was "Nature is harsh. Doesn't mean we have to be as well all the time." It took me some time to register what she had said that day.

The other time didn't escalate to proportions like the time before, but Kafka had probably decided he felt at home enough to shit on the floor of the balcony. The first time he did it, Maa grudgingly let it pass. But when Kafka emptied his bowels again on the floor in a couple of days, Maa went back to her boycott of the water bowl. This time, it lasted just one day. Kafka never shit on the floor again for what seemed a long time.

Days passed. And then arrived that one time, which was the defining moment of my relation with Kafka. He was perched on the balcony grill - half his body inside, half of it outside - and having his fill when I decided to have some fun. I had this bottle of water fitted with a spray on top of it, the kind you see on Colin Spray bottles. As he was absorbed in his drink, I appeared suddenly in the doorway (like those good ol' Bollywood villains) and sprayed water right into his face. And what played out in the next few seconds still seem as if it were right out of some movie scene, everything in slow motion.

Startled, Kafka tried to escape but in his bid to do so, he struck the back of his head against a part of the metal grill and I thought I heard something crack and he fell straight down into the ground. For a few moments, I stood right where I was, dumbstruck. Then the real world came rushing back to me and I rushed to the grill, trying to see the fallen crow. Nothing. Maa not being at home, I rushed down from our first floor flat to the spot where his fall should've been broken by the concrete surface. No sign was visible, it being a hard surface.

I was never much of a biology person but as I stood there below, I remembered studying that birds did not have anything in their bodies that resembled a vertebrae. Or did they? No, they didn't. And then when I looked up at my balcony, I saw a crow on a branch of the almond tree out of the corner of my eye. Surely that was not Kafka? There was only one way to find out. And so to get a better view of that head, I ran back to my balcony.

But it was gone by the time I got up there. Had I really heard that cracking noise, or had it been a figment of my imagination, thanks to pop culture? Was Kafka really gone?

A week passed and there had been no sign of Kafka yet. I had not dared to tell her what I had done fearing her reaction wouldn't exactly help matters, but she didn't really look that upset when I asked her about him a couple of days after the incident. "It's a bird after all, it might have gone off somewhere," was all she said.

I was reading in the room adjoining the balcony when I thought I heard something hit the grill - a flap of wings perhaps? I went into the balcony and everything seemed in its place except...the marble ball. It was no longer in the bowl it had been for an eternity. It was instead in the other bowl. And then I heard him.

It had come from the upper echelons of the almond tree, I was sure. I went up to the balcony wall and craned my neck as much as I could to see the top when I realised there was something beneath my right foot. Looking down, I saw thin strands of a sticky white liquid with a black not-so-solid substance clinging to my heel. That goddamned bird, I thought.

As I walked to the bathroom on mostly one leg trying to avoid leaving footprints of bird shit on the clean floor, I couldn't help but allow myself a big, wide, foolish grin on my face. Had it really been Kafka's call? Or had I imagined it all? I didn't care anymore.

For that one moment, there was just me. And there was Kafka on the Floor.