And then the Chrysanthemums Died


PUNGIN WAS A cocksure visitor of ours during every important occasion. He was present when we were planting a chrysanthemum garden in memory of our deceased cousin. Mother often said, “O, what a glittering face he has—full of grace like these chrysanthemums!” He was there when the chrysanthemums blossomed, and was there when we decided to discontinue the garden after Grandpa expired.

After that Pungin never came. He went away with the chrysanthemums.

Why he often came to us had reasons other than mere social courtesies. He was a friend to our eldest brother, no doubt. But he always needed people to listen to his stories. He was a lonely man in life, and had stories pent-up in his memories. He wanted listeners, and he had plenty at ours. After all, ours was a literary family—our father being a teacher of literature at the village school.

The last time I saw him was this December – just two days after Christmas. His visit turned out to be the most memorable of all for two reasons. First, he had a hair-raising story to tell, and second, he never came after that.

We at home had many questions ready for him, but we seldom asked any. He was too lovable to be questioned, we thought. There were rumours of his connection with the outlawed organizations of the Hillmen, engaged in an ethnic war against the Woodsmen.
The Hillmen occupied the hilltops while the Woodsmen lived in the forests in the plain. In the middle were the immigrant Nepalese, forming a buffer between these warring tribes in Manipur, India.

We were immigrants and belonged to none. We were friends to all, and foes practically to none.

He often talked of political philosophies and we wanted to know why a lonely man—unmarried hitherto, and having little connectivity with the society and the state at large—needed political philosophies. We didn’t know why he needed to be a celibate. Many more questions we had, but we never asked him any. And now, he was gone before we had answers to any of those.

With his large, broad temple, he looked like a lucky man. His brows would twitch up and down as he talked about events with emotion. Those eyes—always large and curious—had deep-rooted human sympathy. The humane grin he ever bore on his lips hinted of ascetic attributes in him. He was, however, an underground gunman and that perplexed us of all. We knew it all, and yet, we never cared to inform the police whenever he came to us for shelter, sometimes at the dead of the night, and sometimes even earlier. We saw his gun, the bullets and the mortars. We knew they were not for us, and we allowed him a secret shelter.

Christmas that year was wet, for light drizzle showered dampness upon the cold weather, making the season charmless. Bodies, already chilled by snow, were further beset by rain, and few people walked out. The church mikes on two sides—one up on the top of the hill and the other down there in the woods—hollered, ‘Halleluiah halleluiah!’ Christian faith preaching mercy and love flanked the village of the immigrants, non-believers in majority.

That had been the chilliest Christmas there. I was just a young boy, but my family had been living there for more than a century. I had never heard tales of troubled winter from my elders. It was chilly, for rain had aggravated the already snowing season. Chillier had been the nightmarish experience of the previous night!

The Hillmen had attacked the church of the Woodsmen, and had chopped some twenty-seven people including infants and women. All night, gun reports had been heard, and mortals and shells ravished the otherwise tranquil sky. Human cries luckily didn’t reach us, for the distance was too long for that. All night we woke, and the morning had the chill of both temperature and fear. A church with praying mass had been devastated by other ‘believers’.

Pungin entered from the backdoor. His hair was fully matted, and the overcoat all wet. The hunting boots had luscious mud all over, and from the cargo bag—heavy and muddy—a dry chrysanthemum florescence hung, cold and lifeless. Without a word, he rushed near the fireplace and sprayed his legs at an angle of ninety so that he could warm both his legs and the groin simultaneously.

“I have the saddest of all stories to tell today,” he said scanning the expected curiosities in our eyes. We drew ourselves nearer. We always believed that a story sounded the best when heard from the nearest distance.

He did not look contented. The battle had been won, but something had been lost. We could smell that.

“I felt nothing, chopping six men and four women. A couple of children—I could not count their number—fell too in a trice.”

‘A true story! Fie to such true stories! Best are the stories that begin with the line ‘Long ago, there was a king.’ Best are the stories that end with the phrase ‘then, they all lived happily together’. A story, with murder and killing, and real incidents of bloodshed and death doesn’t sound good in our family,’ I thought.

“And finally when it came to that, I…”

He broke down, bowed his head and wept. Real tears flowed down his cheeks, and gathered into a small pool on the surface.

This was the first time the ever-happy Pungin was seen in tears.

“It was dawn—almost morning. Barring a few, bare and lame cries, nothing was left on the part of the enemies. We had devastated a village. A community had been wiped—foetus and all—and no trace of a man was left for future to rise, breed and avenge. We won, and we sang ‘Halleluiah’ in the name of God the father, Lord the son, and of course, the Holy Ghost.”

We served tea, for it was cold. He was offered a cup too but he denied.

“We wanted to see dead bodies—corpses of our foes, the corpses of the enemies of God. Ours was a holy war, and God had ordained us with divine order. Each of us was in a silent competition. We were sixteen gunmen altogether, and a village of more than three hundred had been clean-swept. I wanted to count my share too.”

No, it was not a story. We were waiting for fairies. We were waiting for a sage to come, teach the poor man a mantra, and then bring gold and glory. We were waiting for the lovers to unite and build a house of their own. We waited for the horses to fly with the bride. No, Pungin’s was not a story at all. It was almost a joke!

“I counted ten adult bodies—six men and four women. Alongside were hands and legs, scattered torsos, heads and things. I claimed them in my account, and declared myself a hero. But when I came to…”

Tears! In torrents! Pungin and tears formed a surrealistic juxtaposition! No, Pungin could not cry. His eyes had no tears.

But they were there—tears!

“It was dawn. Cocks were the rulers of the village of Tapon now. They crowed without any fear. They were not our enemies. So we welcomed their cries.”

“The sun too was not our enemy. He was our brother. Jesus too had seen the same sun. We welcomed the redness in the east—vermillion scattered by the sun. There was light, and we decided to move. We were all victors and we had no fear. Victors move around alone. Fearful ones need company. I decided to walk down on my own. God knows which way other ‘warriors’ went.”

As he sat near the fire, the water on his coat started evaporating. It was almost like smoke, and we the children enjoyed the sight.

“Some hundred meters down the lane, along the slope that led to the Irang River, I could see the fringe of an apron inside a cave-like rock crevice. I held my breath, stood in silence and watched with care. No sound of any sort would come out of the cave, but I could make sure the apron moved. The sleeve moved. Something like the stands of an unkempt hair moved. Yes, there was motion inside the cave.”

The story no longer sounded a joke. Our lips locked and eyes widened.

“I went nearer. The movement was more conspicuous now. There was someone there. O, who could that be?

“When I reached the mouth of the cave, I placed one of my feet—shod in elegant fighting boot—at the opening so that the person, whoever was inside, could see. I stood quite long in this position before an infantile cry came: ‘Mummy!’

“Yes, a trace of enemy was there. My mission had failed. Someone had survived the attack. I was not year a hero.

“Then I bent and looked in. My eyes met a pair of female eyes. A terrible fear—fear of death—poured out of her eyes. She looked straight on my face, the way a mother hen does when kites hover nearby.

“Instantly I could see a child in her lap. It was a daughter, calm and speechless now. It seemed as though the child, an infant, hardly a toddle, too understood the gravity of the situation.

“I looked on. Oh, what a beauty she was! A sublime piece of creation! In fear, the twists on her face looked like curves on the most beautiful paintings on earth!

“The eyes were full of human sympathy. They gazed out, fear-stricken. They look out at eternity. Love besieged my heart, and an avalanche of emotions slid down my chest. Yes, love for her swelled inside me.

“She was a mother. I have a mother at home too. She is eighty-five. These days, she looks like a child, and hence beautiful. All mothers are beautiful, and my mother is the most beautiful woman on earth.

“Yes, she was a mother. So, I loved her. I love mothers. They give us life and the world.”

“She was, however, an enemy’s mother. Are enemy’s mothers too? I did not know. I did not ever know. I decided to save her.”

Pungin stopped. He asked for water. Mom gave him a glass that he gulped in a trice. Then he resumed his story:

“‘I won’t kill you. Does your baby need anything?’ I asked. She did not understand, as we spoke different languages. God knows what she felt; she jumped out of the hole in a trice, fell upon my feet and cried making strange sounds. The baby cried louder, and the tranquillity of the morning broke.

“What more did other warriors need? They, like me, enjoyed the cries of the enemies. In fact, they were the inventors of these cries.

“Hekkai, the platoon commander, appeared from nowhere with his dagger, naked and shining, protruded towards the woman. He was shocked to see me there making peace with an enemy. Mercy was there in the Bible, but it should be suspended if the beneficiary is an enemy.

“I could read the dismay in his eyes. He would report our Commander-in-Chief that I was a traitor, a quisling. I loved the mother, and of course the child. But, I also loved my past in the outfit I was a member of—good records, prizes and accolades, compliments and felicitations—as one of the most dutiful men in the militia. I loved that.

“‘Hey you!’ shouted Hekkai at me, and I knew what he meant. ‘Here I am,’ I shouted, and with all my might, dropped the dagger on the woman. The mother and the child…”

And he broke down. The story ended.

No, that was not a story. That was blight.

Before we woke up the next morning, Pungin had left. After that, he never came back. Later we were told he was killed by army in an encounter.

Here at home, we discontinued the garden, and the chrysanthemums stopped blooming.

The story was originally published in the Grey Sparrow Journal Issue [30], Summer 2017

 Bio of Mahesh Paudyal

Mahesh Paudyal is a lecturer of English at the Central Department of English, Tribhuvan University. He is also a poet, fiction writer, translator and critic.


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