Fiction by Balu Swami

             By Balu Swami

Girija was still in bed when she heard the milkman’s call, “Amma pal” (milk), from down the street. She knew her mother’s urging, “Girija, Palkaran” (milkman), would soon follow. She roused herself from the bed and grabbed the copper pot her mom had set outside the kitchen. Rubbing her eyes, she opened the front gate to the house and saw the milkman walk towards her with the cow and the calf in tow.

The milkman tied the cow to the tree outside the gate and squatted down to work the udders. The udders were dry. After several failed priming attempts, he coaxed the calf towards the cow. The moment the calf started suckling, the cow became productive. The milkman forcibly dragged the obstinate calf away from the mother. “Don’t” exclaimed Girija horrified by the cruelty. “How am I supposed to make a living, young lady?” said the milkman and proceeded to squeeze milk into a pail. Girija thought she saw the cow’s eyes well up.

Back inside the house, as Girija set the milk-filled pot down, she said, “Mother, I don’t want to drink milk. My stomach is upset.” “Have some kungi (fermented rice water) instead” responded her grandmother from the prayer room. That day forward, all she had was kungi in the morning and strenuously avoided dairy products.

Paul never enjoyed the obligatory, once-a-month outings with his Dad. He hated having to wake up at the crack of dawn, loading the guns and ammo, and, worst of all, dragging the carcasses onto the truck bed. That particular morning, his attitude was the same as always: get it over with. After trudging through the woods for miles, they spotted a deer at a distance in an open field. It was a not-a-worry-in-the-world buck enjoying the plentiful early spring grass. As his dad aimed his rifle, Paul muttered under his breath, “Don’t Dad!” Dad missed the heart-lung area and the deer dropped down, jumped back up and tried to run. A second shot dropped him again and the deer didn’t move this time. As Paul approached the deer, the deer’s gaze asked him: “Why? What harm did I ever cause you?”

On the drive back home, Paul’s Dad said, “I give up. I’m never going to be able to make a man out of you. Go hang out with your uncle.” His uncle, Willie, was a guitar-strumming, pot-smoking, wannabe singer who had sworn off hunting years ago. Not just hunting, but also guns. So he was practically a pariah in a town where everyone owned at least one gun.

Paul was more than happy to hang out with his Dad’s brother Willie. He learned to play the guitar which earned him the graces of the cool kids at school. Soon he was part of a band playing weekend gigs. At school, he was hungry to learn all things musical and music-related. He talked excitedly about syncopated rhythms and atonality the same way other boys talked about penis size and penetration. His music teacher helped him put together an application to the state college which arranged his escape to the outside world.

The outside world and the world of music converged in Girija, a graduate student in the school of music, who had been assigned to assist undergrads like Paul complete their assignments. She introduced Paul to music from places like Mali and Tunisia – places he couldn’t locate on a map. She also introduced him to kungi. Noticing there was never any meat in her lunch box, he  had become curious about her diet. That’s how he learned she was not just meat-free but also dairy-free. The story about how she became dairy-free became his “Aha” moment. Here was the answer he was waiting for. It seemed to resolve all his ethical, moral and intellectual dilemmas. He became a vegan.

Girija and Paul decided to promote kungi and offered free cups at the campus co-op. It became a super hit. To cope with demand, they leased a tiny space next to a nail salon in a strip mall. A food writer raved about the place and the lines outside grew interminably long. A national coffee chain bought them out and made Girija and Paul joint chief operating officers of the kungi division. Girija was thrilled with her new role as a corporate executive jetting to different parts of the country and the world. Paul was miserable after a few months. He had heard Girija talk longingly about the village her family was from. He was amazed to learn that her grandparents who worked the fields in the hot sun all their life on a diet of rice, lentils and vegetables, had lived into their nineties. He was obsessed with the idea of visiting the village – a visit that held no appeal for Girija.

The village was a disappointment. American cereal had replaced kungi. People sent him to an upscale restaurant in the city to taste “traditional” kungi. On one of his train rides, he met a sadhu (holy man) who was on a pilgrimage to holy sites on the banks of the Bagmati river. Once in Kathmandu, Paul went looking for sacred buddhist sites he had read about. In a remote village, he saw a lone monk in a deserted monastery. Something about the monk made Paul return to the monastery several times. Each time, the monk went about his business as if he hadn’t noticed Paul. One day, Paul found the monk watering the tree in the front yard. Without looking up, the monk asked, “You want to know the future, yes?” Stunned, Paul said, “Yes. I’m lost.” The monk said, “In order to know the future, you need to know the past.” After a pause, the monk said, “In the past, you were a deer. In the future, you will be a cow.” He then went over to a bag of rice by the door, got a handful of rice and dropped the grains into Paul’s cupped hands. “When in doubt, ferment the rice and drink the water” said the monk and then disappeared into the sanctum.

- Balu Swami is a writer who has lived on two continents, in three countries, and in multiple cities. He currently lives in the U.S. His works have appeared in Ink Pantry and Flash Fiction North.

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