R K Biswas
The night he died, Ratnankur Roy-Dewanji saw the rabbit he had killed more than sixty years ago. His head was not playing tricks. He was not dreaming. Nor was it the effects of the drugs they’d been feeding him. His mind was lucid. Clearer than it had been in the past two years. He was certain. The rabbit was real. He saw it as clearly as he had first seen it hopping across the road in front of his father’s car on that long ago rainy night. Ratnankur had just learnt to drive, and often used the excuse of running errands in order to take the car out for a spin.
Ratnankur’s father had bought the Rover from a Scotsman departing from a newly independent India. The car shone like a new penny and purred like a just fed cat on a warm lap. Ratnankur’s father always gave his long and luxuriously bushy moustache a twirl before turning on the ignition. And another when the car hummed into life and rolled forward. Ratnankur merely sat straighter when he was behind the wheel; he didn’t have his father’s moustache. And the car didn’t purr as much when he drove.
Ratnankur took the short cut to town past a quiet stretch with thickly growing deciduous trees on either side. The rabbit hopped ahead, and kept at it. Not once or twice, but almost every time. It had an unmistakable coat – brown with a large scalene triangle of white fur on its back. There was a spot of white on its left haunch, and its tail was brown on top and white underneath. The rabbit ran ahead, then stopped to twitch its whiskers and look at Ratnankur provocatively, with a gleaming black bead of an eye, before kicking its hind legs backwards and vanishing into the undergrowth. The rabbit was challenging him, perhaps even calling him names in his cheeky lagomorph way.
Ratnankur was not sure when the idea first came to him. It was a thought that quickly translated into desire and then into strong need. Before he even realised it he found himself chasing the rabbit whenever their paths crossed. He reasoned that the rabbit had thrown a silent challenge at him. He began driving down the rabbit’s road regularly only for an opportunity to blossom. But the little fellow was always a step ahead. In rain or shine, windy weather or sultry stillness, the rabbit stayed ahead.
Ratnankur grew angrier with every failed attempt. Initially he had thought to only scare the rabbit. He had read or heard that rabbits were easily frightened and could even die of heart attacks. The thought of his tormentor freezing into shock and then toppling over with the quick twitch of rigor mortis sent a thrill down Ratnankur’s back. But the rabbit was proving to be too fast. Or plain lucky.
Fate favours the patient. And Ratnankur managed to get the rabbit one day. Perhaps it had grown tired of the game. Perhaps it had grown old. Or injured. It did look like it was slower than usual, and Ratnankur thought he detected the hint of a limp in its gait. Whatever the reason, the rabbit could not hop away from the Rover’s wheels in time. A mini fountain of blood shot up staining the wheel. A few drops reached the fender and one of the headlights. When Ratnankur returned home, his father asked him about them. The old man shook his head disapprovingly, saying that now, since Ratnankur had given the car a taste for blood he had no desire to drive the Rover or even sit in it. Ratnankur was welcome to drown the damn machine in the Ganges for all he cared. Ratnankur was pleased that his little tryst with the rabbit had ended up making him the car’s de facto owner.
Ratnankur reached for the bell. He was thirsty. The night nurse took her own sweet time to respond. And when she did come in she was sloppy with the water and spilled some of it on his quilt. The room was air conditioned so the damp patch became almost instantly cold. She tucked him in a little roughly. Then she turned away without making eye contact, and shut the door after her with an insolent click.
Ratnankur rolled the cold part of the quilt away from him. But he felt chilly. They hadn’t bothered to adjust the temperature to his liking. Ratnankur pulled up the quilt again. The rabbit hopped around in the soft smoky blue of the night light. It sat down and scratched an ear with its hind paw. Then got busy grooming itself. It fixed an insolent black stare upon the prone man once it finished.
Ratnankur wished he could prop himself against his pillows. He felt certain he could have had a conversation with the animal. He wasn’t sure what they would talk about though. Ratnankur, at that moment, had no intention of apologising to the rabbit. Nevertheless, he did believe that given the same circumstances today he would not have killed the poor creature. He would have merely scared it off the road. He made an effort to prop himself up. But he had no strength and did not feel like another visit from the night nurse. He closed his eyes and hoped it would be morning soon.
He woke up to the sound of soft snorts and snuffles. It was eerie in the gloom. The wall clock’s phosphorous-coated hands told him that it was two hours past midnight. Ratnankur was certain it was the rabbit again. Maybe it had never left at all. Why was the rabbit after him? What did it want? After so many years? Did rabbits have spirits?
Ratnankur sat up in bed without effort, surprising himself. He felt around for the light switch, pressed the wrong one and set off the red light outside his room. Ratnankur groaned. Now one of the attendants or ward boys would bungle in. They would insist on giving him the plastic urinal even if he protested; there wasn’t any urine left in his bladder. The doctors encouraged him to drink as much liquid as possible, and he tried his best. But his bladder, which had acquired a will of its own these days, was decidedly disobedient. He lay back in bed and waited for the rabbit.
The rabbit peeped from behind the curtain. It was wearing a collar with a leash attached. Ratnankur was surprised. Whoever saw such a thing? It looked cute and funny though. He was sorry he had killed it all those years ago. The sorrow welled up in his heart, which had so far preferred to pump only blood. The feeling pushed its way into his throat. His hands that lay limp against the bedclothes began to shake. His lips trembled.
‘I am sorry,’ he said at last. ‘I really didn’t mean to hurt you. Kill you like that. I’m sorry. My father disapproved. At that time I didn’t realise what he’d meant by rejecting the Rover. That was his gentle protest. Yes. That’s just what it was.’
Thinking of his father brought tears to his eyes. He wished he had been a better son. But when he had the chance it had seemed like a daft idea to do things simply to please his old folks. He had never taken much interest in his own progeny, but when they grew up and left him alone, he felt affronted. He had never stinted on their education and other things. Spent fortunes on their marriages and bought cars and jewellery for them. But the ungrateful wretches had no time for him.
Ratnankur grimaced. He tried to stop the flow of tears. What was wrong with him? Why was he suddenly splitting up into two different personalities? One sentimental and maudlin, and the other his usual practical and hard headed self. But the memories came trooping in. They were not the remembrances of his victories and conquests in business and love and life in general. They presented events and occurrences he had never given a second’s thought to before. They, the squeaky little losers, now twitched their whiskers and pointed their thin furry paws at him accusingly.
Ratnankur remembered with a start that he had forgotten to scatter his father’s ashes into the Ganges at Gaya a year after the cremation. It had been his father’s wish. The small clay pot had stood in a corner of the old man’s prayer room, gathering cobwebs. Ratnankur couldn’t remember for how long.
‘Why didn’t anyone remind me?’ He muttered in anger.
His wife was the one who should have. But she was missing. Worse, he could hardly remember her face. It occurred to him that he had spent his whole life with a strange woman. And now she was nowhere to be found, and he was too helpless to go out and search for her. He tossed his head about on the thin hospital pillow. Was she dead already? He didn’t know. He couldn’t remember. He tried to visualise his children’s faces in the dreary air of the room. But the images faltered. He thought of his father again, the Rover and the rabbit. They were as real as the pain crawling about inside his torso.
Ratnankur’s father looked at him and shook his head sadly. He lit his pipe and walked over to the car, still shaking his head. The right headlight had some blood splattered on it. The rabbit sat impudently on the car’s bonnet. Ratnankur hobbled after his father. A part of him was surprised that he could move at all when just moments ago he could barely lift his hands up. It occurred to him that a hospital room was an unusual place for a Rover or any car to be parked in. But he dismissed the thought. He was still a powerful man, and the room and medical treatment his money had purchased was the best the country could offer. His sons knew how much he treasured the old Rover, much more than his other cars.
‘Baba wait. I didn’t mean it. Look the rabbit is sitting on the car. Please just stop and turn around. Baba please.’
The older man stooped to examine the blood on the headlight. He took out a spotless white handkerchief and began to wipe off the stain. Soon the headlight, fender and wheel were clean. He shook the now no longer white piece of cloth and smoothened it with both hands, pipe clamped between his teeth. He folded the handkerchief and replaced it in his pocket. He then got into the Rover and backed it out of the room.
Ratnankur stared. The car, his car was gone. He returned to his bed feeling petulant. What kind of a father, on the pretext of visiting his sick son, makes off with his car?
‘It was my car,’ said Ratnankur to the rabbit who now sat on the floor exactly where the Rover had stood seconds before. ‘Baba said he would have nothing to do with it. He did. That makes it my car for I am his son. You know that don’t you?’
The rabbit flopped its ears back and did a complete about turn. It kicked its hind legs towards Ratnankur and hopped out of the room. Ratnankur felt an uncontrollable rage bubble up inside him. He snarled at the rabbit’s twitching tail. Something solid and stone smooth rose up from his throat and rolled into his tongue. Involuntarily he coughed and then spat with as much force as he could muster. The thing shot out like a bullet. The rabbit vanished instantly. The lights began to dim around Ratnankur as he watched a small and curiously circular black body hit the floor where the animal had been seconds ago, before dissipating into the darkness.
RK Biswas is the author of Culling Mynahs and Crows, Lifi Publications and Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women, Authorspress. Her third book Immoderate Men is forthcoming from Speaking Tiger Books. Her short fiction and poetry have been published worldwide, notably in Asia Literary Review, Eclectica, Per Contra, Etchings, Markings, Pushing Out the Boat, Muse India, Out of Print and Nth Position. She won second prize in the 2016 India Currents Katha Literary Fiction Prize for her story It Comes from Uranus. Her novel was listed as one of the 20 most popular books published in 2014 by The Readers’ Club, Delhi. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer's Retreat Short Story Contest. The recipient of numerous other awards and accolades, she blogs at http://biswasrk.wordpress.com.