WHEN THE BIRDS FLY HOME
With unflinching faith, a mother waits for the return of her only son.
"Ni Mano, just go and see who is knocking at the door !" Amar Kaur called out to her daughter, making a feeble effort to raise her head from the bed. "There is no one at the door Bibi, why don't you just get some sleep?" Replied Mano irritably. "Look at you! Do you think I am deaf? I just heard somebody knock at the door. What if it is Jeeta? Do you want him to keep standing outside in the street in this cold?" "Okay, Bibi, I will check." Said Mano dismissively, continuing with her knitting. Exhausted by a fit of coughing, Amar Kaur drifted off to sleep.
Amar Kaur and Mano live in the small village of Saidpur on the outskirts of Phillaur. The number of migrant families in Canada now exceeds those in the village. Some immigrants have left behind farmhands ( mostly from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh) in the outhouses behind newly built houses with aeroplanes atop water tanks on the roofs. Long abandoned houses stand desolately with tenacious peepal trees growing out of wall cracks. Condemned to darkness, such dwellings are labelled 'Be-chiragh' and given up to ghosts and cobras. Certain streets in the village are entirely be-chiragh, dark and spooky after sundown, like graveyards of people who chose to die and be reborn in another country across the oceans. The only footfall in these brick-paved streets is that of drug addicts, mangy dogs and stray cattle. Amar Kaur and Mano live in one such house, except that feeble rays of dim, yellow light from a low voltage bulb hanging in the small courtyard show that it is not be-chiragh yet.
"Bibi, I have wrapped up your roti in the napkin and placed it near the stove. Here are your pills, and do remember to take them after your meal. You know your condition gets worse if you miss your medicines. I am leaving for work now." Mano picked up her shoulder bag and hurried to board the local bus to Phillaur to reach her office.
Monday mornings were busy. Mano took her seat at the 'Golden Property Consultants and Dealers' front desk, answering phone calls and welcoming prospective clients. Arun Dev, the proprietor, sprawled in a cabin with mustard rexine covered sofas, ordering several cups of milky, sweet tea and Cremica biscuits for prospective property buyers.
"Best deal hae ji. Close to the main road, perfect for a showroom. The family has to send their son to Australia and must sell urgently. So I can get a throw-away price for you. But you must close the deal now, as there is another party interested in the property too, and they want to put up a McDonalds here," he said conspiratorily. Mano waited till lunchtime to speak to him."Sir, I need an hour off for urgent work."
"What urgent work? I know you want to make a trip to the travel agent to ask about your missing brother again. It has been two years since he disappeared. Do you really believe he will return after all this time, though he has not bothered to contact the family for so long? I have offered to sell that piece of land you have mortgaged to the arhtiya, but you will not see sense. I have no other intentions but to help you. Go if you must, but return soon."
The narrow, inner streets of the old Phillaur bazaar are abuzz with daily shoppers who seem to have stepped out with an unending list of requirements. Lazy, emaciated cows claim their space in the middle of it all. Shops sell kitchen rations, plastic containers, China-made mobile phones, gaudy, colourful polyester salwar suits with garish embroidery and school books. Small booths for receiving money through Western Union, IELTS coaching and English speaking academies, mobile phone sellers and 'Beauty Parlur for Bride make up' dot the narrow street lined with open drains. A faded yellow board with "Gaba Travel Agents and Visa Consultants" written in bold red letters hangs a little askew over an unswept, dark and narrow staircase leading up to the first floor over a shoe store. 'Want to go Canada, UK, America? We make your dreams true.'
Billu continued to chat on his mobile phone, with a cursory glance at Mano as she entered and took the chair opposite his table, hugging her bag to her chest. The top three buttons of his green and purple bush-shirt gaped open to show a thick gold chain sitting on a hairy chest, while the rest strained to hold in a bursting midriff. Mano waited impatiently as Billu talked a bit louder and laughed a bit more rakishly, scratching his exposed chest every now and then. Large posters of the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, and Vancouver's skyscrapers covered most of the wall space in the stuffy, windowless office. Small shiny figurines of the laughing Buddha, Shiv, Laxmi and Hanuman all cohabited peacefully on a high shelf behind Billu's table, a cloying, sweet rose smell lingering from a heap of burnt-out incense lit in the honour of the Gods.Billu eventually finished his chat,looked at Mano condescendingly and tapped the table with a podgy finger encased in three different gemstones."Hanji?""I came to find out if there is any news about Jeeta veer."
"Look, madam, I have told you many times that I am only a travel agent. I can only arrange visas and air transfers. I am not the international police. How can I know where your brother disappeared? I did arrange for him to reach Mexico, didn't I? You received a phone call from him confirming it. Didn't you? Am I expected to keep track of him forever?"
"You had promised his passage from Mexico to the US and a job when he reached there. He said your contact man in Mexico kept postponing further transportation to the US. Jeeta veer called us three-four times to say that he was in a terrible state as his money was running out. After that, we did not hear from him again. It has been two years since he left. My mother has lost her mental balance and is bedridden. My father raised the money you asked for by mortgaging the only piece of land we had. You know there is no other male member in our family now. You must help us trace my brother. Who else can I go to?"
Billu looked at her exasperatedly as one does with an obstinate child who insists on having a toy she cannot have.
"You come here at least once a month to ask about him. Every time I tell you that there is no news. Maybe he has disappeared deliberately; maybe he does not want to take responsibility for his family. Maybe he is doing aesh with a mem there," he added with a wink and a leer. "Nevertheless, I am at your service whenever you need me. But you consider me to be 'gaer'. Does it look good that a nice girl like you should work at that scoundrel property dealer's office?" he simpered.
There were times when Amar Kaur snapped out of her mental fog and communicated intelligently. She sat up on the bed as Mano returned home in the evening. "Any news of Jeeta?""No, there is no news. Neither is there a possibility of any news, and I will not go to that lecherous Billu to ask again. We have to accept that Jeeta veer is gone, and I wonder if he is even alive or….""Hai, hai, don't utter such inauspicious words, girl! Nothing will happen to my Jeeta. Waheguru will bring him back to me safe and sound. Your bhua has met a siana blessed with the divine ability to see beyond this world and communicate with the dead. She is bringing him to meet us."
Dressed in an orange kurta and dhoti, his matted hair in a topknot, forehead smeared with ash, Yogi Bhag Ram announced his arrival with loud incantations of 'Alakh Niranjan!' Lowering his stocky frame on the woven string bed in the courtyard, the yogi shut his eyes and chanted a mantra under his breath as Amar Kaur and Mano bowed to him deferentially. Mano's bhua Bhani stood by with folded hands, waiting for him to speak."I can smell death and disaster in this house. I feel the presence of a tortured soul pining for deliverance!" "You are right, maharaj", wailed bhua. "Bad kismet has looted our family. My nephew Jeeta begged my brother to send him to Amrika, saying he saw no future in Punjab. The travel agent asked for a hefty amount, luring him with promises of a well-paid job in Amrika that would take care of the loan. Veer pledged his land to the arhtiya to borrow money. Abandoned midway without legal papers, Jeeta never reached Amrika at all. He called home a couple of times, and then we lost track of him. My brother lost two successive crops – one to spurious seeds and another to unseasonal rains. The arhtiya started pressurizing him for money. Veer was a proud, self-respecting man. Unable to bear this humiliation, he walked out into his fields one night and hung himself from a peepul tree." Said Bhani, wiping her eyes with her dupatta.
"Shiv! Shiv! His troubled atman roams in your house and fields." He shut his eyes again for several minutes, muttering un-intelligibly and running his fingers over rudraksha beads. "His atman speaks to me. He says that he will allow nothing to grow in these cursed fields. He refuses to leave. Anyone who sets foot in his fields will die a painful death.""How can he do this, maharaj? My Sardar was a very God-fearing and good man, and he never hurt a fly in his lifetime." Said Amar Kaur."He is no longer the man you knew, bibi. He is a prêt-atma now. A Pret-atma has no love or compassion for anyone and seeks to destroy those who cross their path. Look at you. You have fallen ill because of his wrath. Did you often fight with him?"Amar Kaur sobbed remorsefully into her dupatta as Bhani threw her an accusing look. "Hai, hai, Rabba, I never knew he would leave us all like this! You know every man and wife occasionally exchange some hot words. May my tongue burn! Guide us on what to do, maharaj. Please find a way to bring peace to his soul. I have a young daughter at home, and the entire burden of looking after me and the house has fallen on her shoulders.""That is why I am here, bibi. God has sent me to banish your troubles. Let me build my dera on your accursed fields. Only the power of God's name will bring deliverance to your husband's soul and save you from harm. I also have the connections to free the land from the arhtiya's possession."
Amar Kaur, Bhani and Mano looked at each other. What were they to do? Would Surjit Singh's soul continue to wander in torture if they refused? Would they ever be able to raise enough money and succeed in getting back their land from the arhtiya on their own?"Maharaj, this little piece of land is all we have. My husband, father-in-law and generations before him have been tilling this land. My son will return home one day. What answer will I give him? His ancestral land is like his mother. Please suggest another way to find peace for my husband." Amar Kaur joined her hands humbly."Bibi, harden your heart and listen to us. Your son will never return to you. Accept God's will. Give up hope of seeing his face again and start spending your remaining life in the service of God. Let go of moh maya."
Amar Kaur froze and looked at the yogi with blank, uncomprehending eyes. Mano feared she would regress into another fit of delusion. "Hurry up and open the door, Mano, someone is at the door. Maybe it's Jeeta," said Amar Kaur, her body in a tremor."Come and lie down, bibi." Then everyone heard a loud knock on the door. Who could it be this late in the evening? Hardly anyone visited their home nowadays. Bhani opened the door to see a thin, pale boy with sunken eyes standing there. Overwhelmed with disbelief and joy, she looked hard lest her eyes played a trick on her.“Hey Waheguru, ni bhabi, look who is here! Our Jeeta has returned. Sadke mere puttar, is it really you? Where have you been all this while? Come in and meet your mother first."Amar Kaur opened her arms to hug her son." Where have you been, puttar? Look at you. How thin have you become? What happened to you? Are you well? Come, come, sit down here." Tears streamed down her face as she kissed and caressed him.Mano looked fiercely at the sheepish looking yogi, handing him his stick."We will keep our land and our phantoms, maharaj. The birds may fly all over the sky in search of seeds but eventually come back home to their nest at the day end."