No Man’s Land

A resounding burp announced the end of Muthappa Shetty’s midday meal. As if on cue, his wife Laxmi came out of the kitchen and cleared his plate. Muthappa stood up quickly, straightening his crisp and spotlessly clean white shirt. With his daughter Sudha’s wedding in the evening, there was no time to waste. He stepped out of his ancestral house and looked straight ahead. A smile spread across his sunburned and wrinkled face as he looked at his green paddy fields. These fields would provide a beautiful backdrop for the wedding. The smile soon turned into a scowl as he turned to look at his neighbour Abbas Ali’s farm. It was greener, and lusher.

Presently, Muthappa saw the portly figure of Kariya running towards him. He impatiently waited for Kariya to catch his breath, so he could tell him the reason why he’d come running like his ass was on fire.

“Salim the florist has cancelled,” Kariya said finally, wiping his sweat-beaded forehead with the loose end of the grimy towel that was slung over his shoulder.
“Cancelled? Why?”Muthappa asked.
“He said, ‘he can’t be taking any chances.’ He feels they’d be coming any time to check his papers. Here, Kariya stopped and gave Muthappa a knowing look. “But Dani, you know Salim. He’ll find his ID the day you find a road without potholes in Mangaluru.” Kariya allowed himself a little laugh at Salim’s expense.
“Ah, yes, yes,” said Muthappa, happy that his suspicion of the direction in which the country’s politics were heading, had been confirmed. But what was he to do now about the wedding flower arrangements? Salim was the best. He had the best of natural flowers, the finest of dry flowers, and classy decoration ideas. Muthappa forcibly stopped this trail of thought. Surely, he could do without Salim. He took a deep breath and geared himself to handle the task at hand.

He headed to his flower garden. His secluded village didn’t have any other florists. So, he had to fend for himself. His heart warmed as he smelled his jasmine blossoms. They were his pride. He could use those for the wedding decorations. And roses? Where were his roses? His marigolds? His chrysanthemums? He turned around. A flash of yellow, orange and red caught his eyes. His precious roses stood in the middle of the garden. His face darkened when he saw that there weren’t enough. Just yesterday he remembered thinking proudly that his flower garden could cater to the wedding needs if necessary. Out of the corner of his eye, he sensed a movement. He could see his neighbor Byari’s wife, Yezdani, sauntering about in her kitchen garden. Last week, he’d caught Yezdani eying his flowers. He’d have to ask Kariya to guard the flowers carefully till the wedding needs were met.

The Byaris had recently acquired the farmhouse. It had once belonged to his long-time friend Praveen Alva. What was that pirki Alva thinking while selling his ancestral farmhouse to the Byaris? Muthappa had seen Byari’s son Abdul participating in the recent student protests against the CAA. The bill put people in their place. It told them where they belonged. If the bill had been passed about two years ago, the Byaris wouldn’t have been able to illegally acquire the farmhouse in the first place. These sudden acquisitions in the recent years had to be illegal. How else had that community spread through his village like weeds?

Muthappa headed towards his house, to look into the shamiyana arrangements. But he caught no sight of workers setting up the pandal anywhere. From a distance, he could see Kariya climbing the walls. Kariya was holding a young boy of about 15 by the collar and shaking him. “What happened, Kariya?” Muthappa hollered from the front yard. Kariya was prone to indulge in unnecessary fights. Muthappa didn’t want a scene on the day of Sudha’s wedding.
“Dani, that good-for-nothing shamiyana guy has cancelled. His truck with the shamiyana and the decorative lights has been blocked by the CAA protestors,” Kariya spat angrily. “He has sent his son to convey this to us. That bastard didn’t have the nerve to call us or tell us personally.”

Muthappa’s heart skipped a beat. The afternoon sun shone on him brightly, but he felt cold. He hadn’t solved the flower decoration problem yet, and now he was faced with another problem. Slowly, his feet found their way back to the main door of the house. He entered the house and called out for Laxmi, not entirely sure why he wanted her. His mind couldn’t form a single logical thought. He could hear women talking in the room he liked to call “The No-man’s Land.” His widowed mother had lived in this room for ten years after his father’s death. After her death last year, Laxmi started using this room to entertain her friends. The unspoken rule in the house was that men were barred from entering it.

Presently, Laxmi came out of the No-man’s Land in her house sari. But she had already styled her hair in the traditional wedding bun, which was ornamented with a flower garland of jasmine and roses.
“Where did you get those flowers from?” Muthappa demanded, looking at the flowers adorning her bun.
“You don’t normally notice these things,” Laxmi said, surprised. “Doesn’t it look nice?”
Muthappa had no patience for banter right now. “Where did you get them from, Laxmi?” he asked impatiently.
“From our flower garden of course. Where else?” Laxmi said, not really sensing his mood.
“You had them plucked?” Muthappa exclaimed. “How much have you plucked?”
“Can you please tell me what the matter is, instead of interrogating me like the tahsildar?”
“Please just answer the question.” Muthappa said slowly, feeling a fight coming up.”Where are the flowers now? We need it for the wedding decorations.”
“You want to use the flowers from our garden for the wedding decorations? What about the florist?” Laxmi asked, finally catching his urgency.
“He’s cancelled. But that’s irrelevant now. We can’t have the decoration we wanted. We have to make do with what we have in our garden.”
“Will we have enough?” Laxmi asked her voice shrill with anxiety.
“We will just have to make do. So, please don’t use up all the flowers for decorating your stupid hair.”
Laxmi looked hurt. “It’s not like I go about wearing jasmine flowers every day. Sudha’s wedding would be just the occasion to indulge in…” Sudha’s voice trailed off as other female family members, aunts and grandaunts and nieces, filed out of ‘No-man’s-Land.’ All of them had jasmine and rose garlands around their buns and braids and ponytails.
Laxmi looked on guiltily, and started saying something that sounded like “Shall I make you some tea?”, but Muthappa was already walking towards the kitchen through the long, open corridor, that allowed a 180-degree view of his orchard. He wanted to look into the catering arrangements. As he passed the open corridor, he saw Abbas Ali standing in his garden, under a mango tree. Abbas Ali smiled when he saw Muthappa. Muthappa nodded and continued walking.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, he remembered an argument he had had with his son Dhanush about Abbas Ali. A sense of tiredness and listlessness overcame him. He sat down on the ledge in the narrow open corridor. He felt like he had lost control over his mind. He didn’t understand why his mind was forcing him to relive this irrelevant exchange with his teenage son, at a time when he should be looking into filling all the gaps in the wedding preparations. “What about Abbas Uncle?”Dhanush had asked defiantly. “Abbas Uncle has been our neighbour for as long as I can remember. And his father before him, and his grandfather before him. How could they have been illegal immigrants?”
True, Abbas Ali’s family had been here forever. But weren’t they all conquerors, who came to India with that Genghis Khan guy who had the impudence to completely plunder India?
“You’re thinking of Mohammad Ghazni, Appa,” Dhanush had corrected him impatiently.
Muthappa had reddened then. “Mohammad or Genghis, you do understand the point I am trying to make, right?” Muthappa had ploughed on.
“Yes, Appa, I understand. But you are too stuck on the same old ideas. So what if they are invaders or migrants? We’ve all moved here from somewhere or the other. It’s not like we have all sprouted out of the soil like the touch-me-nots, right? It’s a no-man’s land, till a man mans it.”
Muthappa snorted and shook his head.”They are not like us, Dhanu. Look at the clothes they wear. The hijab of the woman. The attar from Dubai. It almost made Laxmi puke the other day at last week’s sante.”
“Appa, this is silly. We can’t let ridiculous things like their habits or customs determine our opinions of them. Amma is allergic to everything, even the samrani that you insist on burning every evening. You don’t seem to care about that.”
When Muthappa didn’t respond, Dhanush had continued in a more assuaging tone. “Appa, we, as Hindus, have some customs, some idiosyncrasies too, that–”

“Really? What customs?” Muthappa asked.
“I mean, we light incense sticks and burn camphor. Not everyone might like it,” Dhanush said.
“These customs have been passed down to us…” Muthappa started and then stopped. Dhanush looked at him evenly.
“Just because we don’t like the habits of some people, doesn’t mean we have to hate them, Appa. There are so many things you do that I don’t like.”
“Is that so? What habits?”Muthappa asked, his heartbeat quickening.
“Appa, just leave it.”
“No, no, tell me. I am broadminded. Go on,” Muthappa had insisted.
Dhanush took a deep breath and said, “Okay, I don’t like the fact that you blow your nose and wipe your hand on some tree or lamppost, or that burp that you let out after every meal,” Muthappa had gotten up then, red in the face. He could feel his ears burning.
“But, Appa, that doesn’t mean that I like you any less because of that. This is just your habit. This is not you. Do you understand the point I am trying to make? We are all hum–”
“Laxmi!” Muthappa had hollered out for his wife, interrupting Dhanush’s explanation. “Just look at how your son is arguing senselessly. All of 17 years, and he has the haughtiness to criticise his own father. When I was his age, I wouldn’t have dared question my father’s views!”
Dhanush had then stood up and left the room quietly.

Muthappa now felt heat waves travelling up his throat, and reaching his face. He got up from the ledge when he saw Kariya running up the garden stairs. A sense of foreboding overcame him. He started walking towards Kariya. Whatever bad news Kariya had to convey may as well come to him right away. Kariya entered the house, panting like a dog in a fight.
“Dani! Dani!” Kariya was a foot away from Muthappa, but he was hollering, like they were talking to each other from the opposite ends of Muthappa’s sugarcane farm. Muthappa closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“What is it this time, Kariya?” Muthappa could see Abbas Ali out of the corner of his eyes, still standing under the mango tree, still looking in his direction.”Did the caterer Shivshankar also cancel on us?” Muthappa muttered through gritted teeth, hoping against hope that it was not true.
“Yes, Dani,” Kariya said, slowly, infuriating Muthappa with his tone. It sounded like he was explaining to a child that two plus two is four. “You know Shivshankar. Despite all my warnings, he had to go and hire ten Muslim cooks in his team. All of them have taken off to look for their papers and IDs.
“What…This is…How am I…? The wedding…” Muthappa sputtered. How would he serve the 200 odd guests without a professional caterer? He felt faint with worry. He wondered why Kariya was spinning around like a ceiling fan. A sudden spell of darkness overcame him. He could hear Kariya call out, “Dani! Dani!” as if from a distance. Muthappa closed his tired eyes and let his body slump.

When Muthappa opened his eyes, he was lying on the cold red floor of the open corridor. Abbas Ali was peering down at him. His pocked-marked nose was uncomfortably close. Muthappa flinched and Abbas Ali straightened himself quickly. Muthappa sat up slowly. He felt like he was carrying an elephant on his head. A prickling sensation spread down his spine and over his arms and legs. Alarmed, he flexed his fingers and was relieved to find that he could still move them. Abbas Ali had stepped back and stood stroking his long orange beard. Muthappa could see strands of grey where the henna had lost its effect. His skull cap was crisp and white.
Muthappa looked around. Kariya was nowhere in sight. He could hear Kariya alerting Laxmi about his fall.
Abbas Ali stepped forward and extended his right hand out to Muthappa and helped him stand up.
“You need to lie down, Mr. Shetty,” Abbas Ali said in his booming voice, leading him into the cool dark spaces of Muthappa’s house.
Muthappa knew he was inside his own house, but in his daze, he couldn’t say for sure which room exactly. Muthappa lay down on the cot with a thin mattress. The iron hinges of the cot creaked under Muthappa’s weight. The room looked familiar, but it felt like a memory from a previous life. Muthappa looked around. There was an ancient Godrej cupboard in the corner. He could smell flowers. He saw two straw baskets next to the cupboard, brimming with his precious roses, jasmine and marigolds. He looked at them dully, waiting for them to evoke an emotion in him. Nothing. He saw an earthen pot on a stool next to the bed. Along the whitewashed wall, he could see black and white photographs of his parents and grandparents. A steel tumbler was perched precariously on the lid of the pot. Abbas Ali poured some water out of this pot and handed it to Muthappa, which he accepted mechanically and drank from it, spilling a considerable amount down the front of his shirt.

Muthappa could hear the commotion outside. He could hear Kariya let out his “Dani fainted! Dani fainted!” refrain again. He could hear Sudha and Laxmi asking, “What are you saying, Kariya?
He could hear Dhanush’s calmer tone, asking, “Where is he now, Kariya?”
Abbas Ali looked at Muthappa and cleared his throat. “I think I better tell them where you are.”
Suddenly, much to Abbas Ali’s surprise, Muthappa started laughing hysterically. When Laxmi, Dhanush, Sudha and Kariya found him, they saw a very bewildered Abbas Ali, unable to take his eyes off the laughing Muthappa. Between bouts of laughter, Muthappa was muttering something they couldn’t quite understand. It sounded like he was talking under water. Laxmi looked too shocked and wary to approach him. Her eyes travelled from Muthappa’s dishevelled hair to his frothing mouth and down to his dirty and wet clothes. Finally, Dhanush approached him, and bent down to listen to what he was saying. A sad smile broke out on Dhanush’s face. He then looked at Laxmi and Abbas Ali and said, “He’s saying, ‘we are in No-man’s Land.'”

As Laxmi and Abbas Ali looked on, uncomprehendingly, the evening wind mixed with Muthappa’s hysterical laughter and the cackle of the birds returning home at the end of the day.

Author Bio
Sonali Hegde is a mother of two. Her job as a subtitler lets her watch movies, but not quite the movies she’d like to watch. Her dream is to write unputdownable books for children. She wants to write something real; something that will touch every child’s life. But on most days, she only gets around to writing a shopping list for her kids.

Redefining Nationhood
For Indian writers writing in English, this is a tumultuous time to be alive. Politically and culturally speaking, a lot is happening in our nation today. And these posts are our attempt to decipher, understand, and explore the concept of nationhood. Our writing is a celebration of what it means to belong to a nation that is as diverse and pluralistic as India is. And in this attempt, if we persuade people away from propaganda, we might have just created literature.
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