On the morning of June 21, the papers printed an item in the international section – it was a slow news day – on the annual Yulin dog meat festival. Wedged in between an article on the birth of quintuplets to a couple in Cleveland, Ohio, and an advertisement for a miracle hair loss treatment, the piece described how visitors to the southern Chinese city of Yulin could celebrate the summer solstice by dining on lychee fruit and fresh dog meat. Animal rights activists condemned the Chinese. The Chinese condemned Western hypocrisy. The dogs were in no position to condemn anybody.
The festival had been a tradition in Yulin for four hundred years, but there had been no Facebook back then. When Eram dropped the newspaper and grabbed his phone that morning, he found his newsfeed awash with outrage. And photographs. Photographs of ten thousand dogs skewered-and-roasted, or awaiting their turn in cages.
By the time he had driven like fury over to Pali Hill, each of his eight calls to Gehna had gone unanswered. Too impatient to wait for the elevator, he bounded up four flights of stairs and skidded into the apartment. Gehna’s mother, who was sitting at the table, was startled into spilling soup down her house robe.
“Morning, Mrs R, what’s the word?” Eram said, trying to catch his breath. “May I just say that that is a lovely, what is it, a kaftan? That is a lovely kaftan. Very fetching. Listen, Gehna’s not taking my calls. Is she around, do you know?”
Nina Rai glared at him. “Eram. You know you are welcome in my home. But you will enter it with decorum and not like some crazed hooligan. Would you like a bowl of gazpacho?”
“Mmm, I would absolutely love a bowl of gazpacho, just, not right this second,” said Eram. He was already backtracking towards Gehna’s room. “So, is she here? Gehna?”
“We had breakfast. She was looking at something on her phone and then she said she had a headache.”
“Probably came across some big words, ha ha. I’ll just pop in and check on her.”
Eram heard Mrs Rai yelling behind him to leave the door open. It wasn’t that she thought Gehna and he would start fucking as soon as they were alone in a room. At least, that wasn’t her primary concern. What troubled her far more was that the servants – the cook, the cleaning lady, the driver – shouldn’t be handed the means to gossip about her daughter’s morals (or looseness thereof). Which was funny, thought Eram, because how would she explain Gehna’s soon-to-be-enormous belly? He pushed the door to Gehna’s room firmly closed behind him.
The only sound in the room was from the air conditioning. The curtains were drawn. It was a tomb, almost subterranean in the weight of its stillness. Eram’s mind shied away from the implications of that thought.
He felt his way in the dark to where he could just about make out a roughly Gehna-shaped pile of blankets and pillows on the bed. He poked his finger at what he guessed was a shoulder.
“Oi. Wake up, Rai.”
She was usually such a light sleeper, sitting up in alarm if you so much as glanced in her direction as she slept. Eram began to get that out-of-body-and-in-a- movie feeling again. The scene was “Best Friend Commits Suicide”. Here’s what was going to happen: Eram switches on the bedside lamp and sees an empty bottle of prescription pills. He shakes Gehna’s unmoving body in an access of panic while calling her name repeatedly. He also (temporarily forgetting that this is India) yells for anyone to dial 911.
Later, after help arrives, but too late, he is a pillar of strength to the grieving family. Gehna looks pale but serene at her funeral while he, Eram, says the words that make the congregation weep. His own pain remains buried until, years later, these unresolved feelings lead to alcoholism, failed marriages, financial ruin and a premature death by chronic loneliness. It is tragic and all quite, quite beautiful.
He switched on the bedside lamp. There was nothing medical on the low table beside Gehna’s bed, just books and a vase arranged with the Oriental lilies she loved. Then he remembered Gehna’s almost pathological aversion to littering and snatched up the waste bin. Torn bits of aluminium foil, the kind used to package pharmaceuticals, lay in a thick layer covering the bottom. He couldn’t tell how many strips there had originally been, but it looked like a lot.
Eram’s heart bounced once, twice, and described a perfect Olympian dive straight down his stomach to the ground. He felt like vomiting. Something about the waste in the bin tugged at his attention. He picked up a piece of shiny silver foil to peer at it, and suddenly he was laughing. He flopped back against Gehna’s legs and laughed till he was weak from it. Then he lifted up a corner of the blanket and jostled Gehna aside to make space for himself.
“Eram?” She sounds okay, Eram thought, just groggy. “What happened?”
“What happened? Nothing happened, you just tried to top yourself is all. Do yourself in. Long walk off a short pier. Suicide. Or attempted suicide, anyway.”
She didn’t speak for a while. Eram could sense her embarrassment.
“Is that not...? I mean, I couldn’t find anything else.”
“It’s paracetamol. You have to take painkillers or sedatives. But hey, on the plus side, you won’t be getting any more headaches in this lifetime. Listen, you mind telling me just what on god’s green earth you thought you were doing?”
“They killed them, Eram. The dogs. Those bastards butchered thousands of doggies just because of some primitive bullshit tradition.”
“Well, yes, but – “
“No. Don’t you dare. I admit it, okay? Me eating chicken is the same as those Chinese eating dogs, but I’m at least conflicted about my meat eating. I don’t go around having a party over it with goddamn lychees and...and...”
“I get it. You’re mad. I’m pissed off too. But I was going to say that removing yourself from the equation doesn’t help. It doesn’t change anything. That’s ostrich-like behaviour and no ostrich ever made a difference in the world. ‘Bury your head not in the sand’. Pretty sure Confucius said that. Or Yoda or somebody.”
“Rubbish, you just made it up. And besides, did you know ostriches don’t stick their heads in the sand to avoid threat? That’s a myth. They bury their eggs in the ground and occasionally lean down to turn them over with their beaks,” Gehna sighed. “I think that’s what I need to do to survive. Just go underground once in a while to turn my eggs. So they can face this crazy world as fully matured ostrich. Is it ostrich or ostriches?”
“Ostriches. A wobble of ostriches.”
Gehna giggled. “Ooh, that’s a good one. Almost as good as a prickle of porcupines.”
“A rhumba of rattlesnakes.”
“An implausibility of gnus.”
“Erm. A murder of crows?”
“Oh, please. Everybody knows that one,” Gehna turned to nestle her head more comfortably against him. “So lame. A lameness of Erams. My implausible gnus win.”
Later, as he lay still next to Gehna, Eram was not thinking of much in particular. He let his mind fill with white noise. It was soothing and had practical application, such as, if anybody asked him what he was thinking, he could always say nothing and mean it.
He was sure she had fallen asleep when Gehna mumbled into his shoulder. “I think there’s something wrong with my heart.”
Gehna’s dread of the future was vast, her moods baffling. She was not easy to love. And yet, a new collective noun for animals could tickle her pink.
You take a girl, thought Eram, who really knows her gnus and life will always hold at least a little hope for her. He wasn’t presumptuous enough to believe he could change her. To make of her a permanently sunny and pleasant country. He had no wish to try. It was enough simply to visit.
Excerpted with permission from Not All Those Who Wander, Arjun Nath, Penguin India.