At three o’clock in the afternoon, the cock that lived at Bapo Kale’s house stood full-chested on the mud wall of the compound and decided to crow. He had barely thrown his head back and opened his beak when a shriek filled the air, as untimely as the crowing of Bapo Kale’s cock and a thousand times shriller. The sound rose to a high pitch and stayed there as though all the women of Mauxi had decided to scream till Shiva himself came down.

Bhagi Kale peeped through the bars of her window and then shook Bapo by the shoulder.

‘A bus is coming. And a jeep. And a car! Wake up!’

Bapo wiped the dribble from the corners of his mouth and sat up. A bus and a jeep? In this part of Mauxi and at this time of day? The sound of women and children running came closer. Before long, there was a knock on the door.

‘Come out of the house and get into the bus!’ someone shouted.

‘What?’ Bapo shouted back, straining to hear above the sound of the wailing siren.

‘This is a drill to remove all the villagers of Mauxi in case of trouble!’

‘Trouble? What trouble?’ asked Bapo, cautiously opening the door as Bhagi hovered near his elbow.

‘This is just a practice drill, if the factory has an accident...Bapo Kale and Bhagi Kale – just two of you, aanh?’ asked the short pot-bellied man at the door holding a file and clipboard.

‘Baie gou, it’s happened, it’s happened,’ whispered Bhagi in sudden panic. ‘The gas from the factory will kill us. Close the door, close the door, the gas will come in!’

‘Quiet!’ Bapo hushed her and turned to the man with the file. ‘Tell me properly...has the accident happened or not?’

‘No, no!’ the official shook his head. ‘Nothing has happened.’

‘Then why you want us to get in the bus?’

‘You have to. It is a government order. Everyone in Mauxi has to get in those buses and leave the village within one hour.’

‘What!’ The hair in Bapo’s nostrils bristled and his eyes burned with anger. ‘Who are you to tell me to get out of my house and my village? Is this your father’s house? Is this the bastard government’s house? I am not going anywhere!’

By this time another man with a larger potbelly and an even larger file had come up to the door.

‘What happened, what is the matter?’ asked the second man.

‘He’s not leaving.’

‘Ye, Bappa, you have to get out. Just for a few hours. This is for your own good, understand?’

‘Few hours? You want to take our house, don’t you?’

‘No, no.... Arre, who wants your house?’

‘You want us to get out so that you can take our house and our land. I know you fellows very well.’

‘Enough, enough, old man,’ said the second officer as he brusquely shoved open the door and grabbed Bapo’s shrivelled hand.

‘Yehh, chedechya, bastard, don’t touch me,’ shouted Bapo in rage as he pulled away. ‘I’ll cut off your balls and give them to you in your hand!’ He quickly retreated into the darkness of the two-room house and emerged after a few moments, holding a crude countrymade gun. Its barrel, generally aimed at wild pigs on Bapo’s hunts, now stared down the two bewildered officials.

‘Get out! Get out!’ Bapo yelled, shaking the barrel up and down. The two men ran out of the door and out of the compound, dropping their files as they ran, just before a blast from Bapo’s shotgun sprayed pellets over their heads.

Bapo went out to pick up the fallen files and returned to the house.

‘Well done,’ said Bhagi. ‘They deserved it – the thieves!’

Bapo opened a file and held it close to his face. ‘Can you read this, Bhagi?’

‘Yeh, Bappa, since when I can read, aanh?’ laughed Bhagi, showing disintegrating, paan-stained teeth.

‘I think they are names of all our people. See this, Bomo, Chimno, Navlo, Gangi....’

‘Don’t take that Gangi’s name. Halkatt! Enough that you had a good time with her,’ fretted Bhagi.

Bapo put the file down and pretended to fiddle with his gun. He turned his face away so that Bhagi could not see the wry smile that now cracked his parched and shrunken face as his mind raced back many years. Outside the window, the sound of buses faded into the evening, and suddenly Mauxi seemed very quiet.

‘Why didn’t Dhulo Kharwat tell us about all this?’ asked Bhagi pensively.

‘Chehh, Dhulo is a bastard – he will sell his own wife if he gets a good rate. Didn’t he sell Navlo’s and Sakri’s land to the factorywallahs? See how he built a big house after becoming panch? Was he not a cashew worker like us? Can we even build a toilet from the money we earn making brooms?’ After a pause, he continued, ‘But leave all that. This is honest money, Bhagi, money earned from our hands. That is enough for us.’

After half an hour, the ominous sound of a jeep tore through the dusk, and this time two police constables knocked roughly on Bapo’s door. ‘Those chedyekastache have come back. They will get nothing, nothing from me.’ To bang hard on Bapo Kale’s door was to bang on Bapo’s heart itself, a terrible insult to him. He sat still for a while, speechless with growing rage.

As the knocking turned to violent hammering, Bapo moved the bed from the corner of the room. Digging briskly into the mud floor, he soon hefted out a small metal box from its hiding place. For a moment he gazed at the faded lettering on its cover – British Dynamite Co Limited –a nd then opened it gingerly. He drew out one of the sticks from within and walked to the window.

There he struck a match and lit the fuse. Then, in a swift though rusty movement, he opened the window and flung the stick out on to the road with all his strength. But nothing happened. The only explosive sounds were those of the police at his door.

‘Open up or we are breaking the door!’

‘Zakmarnabaiegouhainsaggleanche – damn it...or else let everyone go to hell!’ muttered Bapo as he grabbed his gun and clambered up the ladder to the wooden attic over the main room. He loaded another shot and stuck his barrel into a gap between the bars of a small window that overlooked the compound.

‘Chedyecheano, I fought the Portuguese under Sinari and Krishnarao Ranno, okay? You bastards can pluck my pubic hair! Get away from my door!’

Bamm! Another volley of shot peppered the mud plaster of Bapo Kale’s compound. The constables clutched the walls in terror and slowly edged away to the corner of the house, from where they fled to their jeep. They thanked their stars when the engine started on the first try, and drove out of Mauxi in a hurry.

Once out of the village they slowed down, but continued cursing their superiors and casting vehement doubts on the legitimacy of their children. A deathly quiet descended on the houses of Mauxi, broken
only by foxes howling in the dusk. Bapo got to work. He hammered some planks across the three windows of the house and across the door too. At eight o’clock the power went out, plunging the desolate village into absolute darkness. Bhagi groped around the room a bit and soon, like a practised bat in its cave, found the Petromax. She lit it and then started making fresh chapattis.

‘Bappa, they might come through the roof tiles. What will we do then?’

‘Don’t worry. I will sit with my gun and shoot them in the arse,’ assured a sweating Bapo, as he cleaned his weapon.

‘I have chilli powder to throw in their eyes,’ offered Bhagi as she warmed the dal.

‘Those sticks have gone damp. Otherwise those fellows would have learnt a good lesson,’ mused Bapo, blowing into the gun’s barrel. ‘They were the last stock from our attack on the Surla mine – 1955, I think, though I can’t remember very well now.’

‘Keep them in the sun,’ advised Bhagi.

‘Yes, yes, keep them in the sun. Everything, keep in the sun. I will keep my balls in the sun to warm them for you,’ teased Bapo.

Bhagi’s furrowed cheeks crinkled as she broke into a toothless grin.

‘You remember last year Tuko had come from Sanguem?’ Bapo turned serious. ‘They told everyone in his village to go to some new houses, and then the river took over all of the old houses – finished! All their grandfathers’ houses gone, sleeping under the water. Tuko had gone diving at the dam and he says all the houses are as they are, even the coconut trees.’

Bhagi lay down on the bed, exhausted from the travails of the day. Bapo sat by her side, keeping an eye on the roof tiles with his gun close by. In the dim light of the kerosene lamp, he watched a solitary red ant make its way from a hole in the mud floor to another in the wall.

‘Ye, Bhagi, we have to put a new coat of cow dung on the floor,’ he said to his wife. But Bhagi was asleep.

‘But don’t go out tomorrow,’ he continued nevertheless. ‘They may take you. We’ll do it after two days.’

Bhagi murmured in her sleep, but she was dreaming of paddy growing in the fields deep under water, with fish swimming over blades of rice plants, their scales flashing now and then in the green sunlight.

Bapo thought about his mud house. It had been built by his father. He remembered stomping in the wet mud along with his father and the other men, getting the clayey mix ready to cast into the waiting wooden forms. He had been a boy then, but that smell of wet earth and his father’s sweat had soaked into his memory, and now he had to only touch and breathe in the walls of the house to remember his father again.

Over the years Bapo had kept the house in good repair, plastering it with a fresh coat of mud after the rains, mixing in a few bitter leaves as his father had taught him, to keep the termites away.

In the coop on the other side of the wall, a hen clucked loudly in her sleep. Soon after that the cock clucked back in the darkness, as though telling her to shut up. Bapo fell asleep. He woke as a beam of sunlight peeped through a roof tile and warmed his cheek. The sound of footsteps walking past his house roused him further. Still holding his gun, he walked slowly to the window, now bent over with the ache of sitting up against the wall all night.

He peeped through the boarded window, and a tired smile cracked his lips. He came back and sat on the edge of the bed. Shaking his sleeping wife by the shoulder he said, ‘I saw Chimno and Sakri... Bomo, Navlo, and Gangi. And Janu and her children. They all look determined and steadfast. They have come back. They are all coming back!’

His wife stirred a little, still heavy with sleep.

‘Wake up, Bhagi. We won, Bhagi, we won!’

The Greatest Goan Stories Ever Told

Excerpted with permission from The Greatest Goan Stories Ever Told, edited by Manohar Shetty, Aleph Book Company.