The book “All Stray Dogs Go To Heaven” by Krishna Candeth is told from multiple perspectives and weaves past and present, dreams and reality.
Nitya is haunted by the pronouncement that he has “forgotten to live.” He leaves Suvastu, his childhood home, and the obsessive, matriarchal world of the Ammalkans to embark on fascinating journeys.
He ventures into a world of mango and biryani lovers, ghosts and philosophers, music and theyyams and calamitous natural disasters. A world full of stories about the secret worlds we inhabit. Stories that happened a long time ago and will most certainly happen again.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Just for a Jolly
There was nothing that Uncle Madi loved more than a biryani from Harris Restaurant, makers of the finest biryani on the Malabar coast. Before taking his fingers to it, he would contemplate that gently sloping mound of speckled white and saffron rice, bearing the most succulent cubes of meat, the summit always topped with a hard-boiled egg. ‘Hookahs from Koyilandi,’ he would say, ‘but for biryani, always Harris Restaurant.’
Madi was the liberating angel of Nitya’s childhood; he would arrive punctually at 10 o’clock every Sunday, and Nitya would run breathlessly to the upper-storey window to catch a glimpse of him leaning lightly on his shiny Raleigh cycle in the boat, lighting a cigarette, and then, after a few puffs, as the boat drew closer to the shore, flicking it away in a flamboyant arc across the water. He wore his old army khaki shorts, brown shoes with khaki socks folded smartly around his calves, and a coloured handkerchief, usually red, loosely knotted round his neck. His closely clipped moustache was topped off by an ageing olive fedora that sat firmly on his head.
If the weather was good, he would call out to Nitya as soon as he arrived, and they would climb down the compound wall adjoining the tank and trawl, with thin linen towels, for tiger barbs in the stream below. ‘Just for a jolly,’ he would say, a phrase he had heard being used by an inebriated lawyer at the New Malabar Club, and appropriated at once for frequent personal use.
One Sunday, squatting as he usually did at the edge of the shallow stream, he was pointing out to Nitya the tiny clumps of newly hatched dragonfly larvae and a few darker knots of mosquito larvae when something fell out of his pocket in a flash of silver and with a deep gurgle settled at the bottom of the stream. He reached his hand into the water and in one unbroken movement retrieved a small concave flask, unscrewed the cap, and took a brisk gulp before pushing it back into his hip pocket. ‘Something to bring heaven a little closer,’ he said, and then proceeded without a pause to the matter at hand: ‘So the dragonfly larvae feed on the mosquito larvae and live in the water until they know it’s time to raise their wings and fly away. They’ll live for a whole year and then die, and of course the cycle will begin all over again.’
After the midday nature lesson there would be a stroll around the compound to look for birds’ nests or to stroke the trunks of trees to feel the differences in their barks. Once, walking past a grove of areca palms, they saw four women in the field below count coconuts into baskets woven from palm leaves and then bend down to hoist the baskets on to the tightly wound circular pads of cloth balanced on their heads. ‘Now watch carefully as they walk off,’ instructed Madi. ‘The weight on their heads has a curious way of activating the sweet muscles in their buttocks. Do you see that? Each set of buttocks is different and makes its own music.’
Some days they would walk beyond the oval tank to the rock shrine and, on the way there, Uncle Madi would sometimes tell a story he remembered from his childhood: ‘My mother once tried to persuade my father to go to some distant town for a pair of peachicks. “The peacock doesn’t belong where I live here in Malabar,” was his stern reply, “I’d rather listen to the cuckoo.”’
When they reached the brooding shapeless mass of rock that was a reminder of something, though they did not know what, Madi would stand silently in front of it for a few moments and say, ‘The goddess Bhagavati, the guardian of the family, this is where they say she first revealed herself. She is the one you should bring all your troubles to. The ones in the prayer room indoors are always busy.’
Lunch was taken at about one o’clock and most Sundays consisted of a peppery lamb stew with potatoes and either a drumstick sambar or an avial. After lunch Uncle Madi would retire for an hour-long nap. He always gave this harmless ritual a playful, enigmatic twist. ‘Do I have your permission to go off and die a little?’ he would ask and walk briskly away, not waiting for questions to clarify the small confusion he had sowed. Perhaps he was saying, ‘You could die as much as you wanted to at night but dying a little in the afternoon, that was a different feeling.’
At around three Uncle Madi would emerge and read out, from a small pocketbook he carried with him everywhere, the frivolous verse he had composed during the week. These dealt mostly with the misfortunes that had befallen—or were sure to befall—his sworn enemies or certain overweening members of the family. They were witty and often ribald, and since the protagonists were all well known to his audience, the exaggerated tone of the verse would often provoke peals of eager laughter. The ballad of a poor but conceited brahmin who marries a girl from a prominent family and goes to live in her spacious family home—an obvious reference to Hawk Knife and Karu— began: ‘From plebian dens to patrician halls, Clutching his tiny pair of balls.’
Tea would be taken at four-thirty, and afterwards, farewells would be said and Nitya would accompany Uncle Madi down to the river and watch him lift his cycle, put it adroitly down in the middle of the boat, and jump in after it. As the boatman pulled on his oars, Uncle Madi would turn swiftly around with a wave, and when he said, ‘Until next Sunday,’ the river would already be bearing him away. Nitya would blink his tears and zigzag his lonely way back up the steps to the house.
One Sunday evening in August, after Inji had brought in a pot of tea along with a plate of thinly sliced bananas fried in ghee, two young men appeared at the edge of the courtyard. They were carrying umbrellas under their arms, and in their hands, pens and loose sheets of blank paper attached to two oversized clipboards. They were foot soldiers in the party and were proud of being perhaps the first communist government in the world to be voted to power not by violent struggles typical of communist parties elsewhere but by peaceful and democratic means. A popular government that had won a majority through peaceful persuasion and promises they obviously intended to keep. The injection of foreign funds, however, earmarked to fight ‘red’ scares, along with the shenanigans of well-entrenched local organizations that viewed reforms in education and land redistribution as an existential threat, caused the newly elected government to be dissolved after just two years.
The older looking of the two men advanced to where Inji and Nitya were sitting in the partly enclosed veranda: ‘We are here to tell you a Land Reform Bill is about to be passed in the legislative assembly and to ask you to submit a list of all your properties along with an estimate of the total number of acres they cover.’
Inji did not ask the men to come in and sit down—that sort of civility lay, if at all, far in the future. She rightly perceived the threat in the man’s request, but she was confused and didn’t know how best to answer his question. ‘You need a permit to search this house,’ she said.
‘But we don’t intend to search the house,’ the man replied, ‘all we want is specific information we can act on.’
‘And what is it that you intend to do?’ asked Inji with some irritation, ‘We know the Superintendent of Police very well and he will not take kindly to your antics. In any case, I will have to speak to my sisters before I can give you the information you need.’
The younger man now spoke for the first time. He said, ‘The Superintendent of Police is a member of our party. Please understand that the goal of the new government is to reduce private property not ban it.’
Nitya was sent off to fetch Madi, who was strolling by the tank and, when they returned, the older man brought the conversation back to the business at hand: ‘But surely you have registered documents in your possession which state clearly the number of properties the family owns?’ ‘That is none of your business,’ said Inji.
‘It is the business of the elected government,’ the man said.
Uncle Madi apologized for their inability to supply the documents at the present time but assured them that the required information would be submitted to them as soon as possible. He poured tea for the two men, which they came forward to receive. The younger of the two men spoke again, ‘We’ll leave now but please understand that we have a job to do, so we’ll surely be back soon.’
Excerpted with permission from All Stray Dogs Go To Heaven, Krishna Candeth, BluOne Ink. Read more about the book here and buy it here.