Monday, November 18, 2013

Short Story: A Crow in the Bonnet

I used to think that crows were creatures of no consequence till the problem started one morning as I was leavening for the office. A crow was sitting on the hood of my Honda City, staring at me. It didn’t move when I tried shooing it away. When I swung my brief case the bird stepped back a little and started making noises as though it was trying to communicate with me. I ignored the creature and drove away. For a moment I noticed it follow my car, flying low.

At the office my assistant, Shani, was ready with drawings of the prestigious shopping-cum-office complex that was to come up at a prime location in the South Indian port city of Cochin. The meeting with the promoter of the project was at noon. We went over the details once more. The job was good. Actually most of the credit was due to Shani who had developed very well with us. I made a note to mention her to our CEO again.

When we came down to the car park, the crow was on the roof of my vehicle.

“That’s him again,” I said.

“Who?” Shani asked.

“The crow,” I replied. “Come, let’s take your car.”

My assistant gave me a curious look but said nothing.

The builder liked the job we had done. For the umpteenth time since we started working on the project he repeated the story about the new town hall at his native place. It was a beautiful plan but when the structure was completed they found that there was no elevator or lift or staircase to the balcony. Everybody laughed once more.

“I’m,” the promoter said, “approving the plan. Hope no detail is left out.”

“Except perhaps a birdbath,” I blurted out.

The client looked at me a little puzzled. Then he chuckled and a moment later my assistant and the others joined in.

“Ram,” Shani said on our way back, “why don’t you buy me lunch? Some quiet place.”

We stopped at a lakeside restaurant, ordered pizzas, vodka for me and Coke for Shani. It was nice being there with her, sitting at a table by a window that overlooked the backwaters. She was slim and tall and was always good company. Of late I had been seriously thinking of proposing to her.

After I had a few sips of the drink my companion said, “Ram, they took the birdbath business as a joke. But I know you didn’t mean it that way.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Well?”

“It just came out.”

Shani was nibbling at a piece of cheese pizza. I took a swig of the vodka, feeling a little foolish.

“What was that about the crow?” Shani asked. “When we were leaving for the client’s place?”

“You saw him,” I replied, “on the roof of my car. He was sitting on the hood when I was leaving home and followed me.”

My assistant was silent for some time; she seemed to have forgotten the food. I ordered a second drink.

“Ram,” Shani finally broke the silence, “half the crows of the world live in this city. Can you make out one from another?”

“No,” I replied. “But this was the same one. I’m certain. And he’ll come again.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because,” I stated vehemently, “he’s trying to tell me something.”

“You really believe the crow wants to talk to you?”

“Yes.”

Shani nodded slowly as though she understood.

When we reached back there was no crow on my car or anywhere near it. In fact there was no crow for the next few days except the ones that flew about in the city. The first thing I did every morning was to look out for my bird.

Work was routine. Shani didn’t bring up the subject of the crow but it surfaced nevertheless. I sketched a logo for Eagle Educational Trust and showed Shani. She took one look and said, “Unacceptable,” and handed it back to me.

Instead of the eagle that was intended, the image that I had drawn was of a crow. Suddenly I felt a deep, piercing fear. What was happening to me? I looked at Shani. Her face was blank.

Now the crow was back. Everywhere. Even in my dreams. In the middle of the night I would wake up sweating, wondering what the bird that was sitting on my bed a moment ago was trying to tell me. Why did it fly off in anger leaving me awake and afraid to wait for the morning? Why did the bird follow me wherever I went? Would it physically attack me?

Shani soon found out about the pebbles. While walking into my office room with me one morning she said suddenly, “Hey, your right pocket is bulging. Too much money?”

I smiled sheepishly, took out the stones and kept them on my table. There were quite a few.

“For the crow?” my assistant asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

Shani spoke to my secretary on the intercom, “Mr. Ram Kumar and I have something important to discuss. We don’t want to be disturbed. Thank you.”

“Hey, I thought I’m still the boss.”

“You are,” Shani said. “Unless you let that crow takeover.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Ram,” Shani said sitting down. “Going around with stones to defend against a crow just doesn’t seem normal.”

“You don’t understand,” I said rather irritated. “If he attacks me other crows also might join him.”

“Shades of Hitchcock. The Birds!”

“Shani, it isn’t a joke.”

“Of course it isn’t.”

“Crows can be ferocious. You’ve no idea what they can do to me.”

“But Ram,” Shani protested, “just think. Why should the birds gang up against you? In the first place, why should that crow attack you?”

“Because it’s trying to communicate and I can’t understand.”

“Crows don’t talk to people.”

Now I was angry. “Many things you don’t know about do exist. Some of the other creatures interact with people. Why not a crow?”

Shani nodded and changed the subject.

Work went on as usual. Every few days the crow would appear, sitting on the car or perching at a window, staring at me. Its bloodshot eyes were frightening. I still carried the pebbles, but fewer than before so that they wouldn’t be too obvious.

A week later came a surprise meeting with the big boss. Just Shani and me. The CEO came to the point straight away. “You’ve been,” he told me, “complimenting Shani so much that I have decided to promote her.”

“She deserves it.”

“Thank you,” Shani murmured.

The boss continued talking to me. “She’s taking your place from next Monday. My plan is to promote you as VP, Commercial Constructions. You know the incumbent is retiring in about four months. Go on leave till then.”

“But I …”

“In the last five years,” the boss cut me short; “you haven’t taken more than one week’s leave at a stretch. You must be aware that we have a generous holiday scheme. Have a good time.”

The meeting was over. Shani followed me. When we reached my room I said, “You manipulated it.”

“Not the promotion part.”

“Why the leave?”

“You need it.”

“Perhaps I won’t have a job when I come back.”

“That,” Shani responded, “depends on the crow.”

I gave her a nasty look. “May be,” I said, “I’ll spend a few days with my mother.” In spite of my repeated requests to stay with me, she continued living with an old servant lady in our ancestral house near Guruvayoor, the famous temple town. The place was ideal for a short holiday.

“Don’t,” Shani immediately killed the idea. “It’ll only upset her. Just phone and tell her you are going away on an advanced management course. Look Ram, you need professional help. I’ve made arrangements at a rest house in the hills. They say it’s the best.”

“I see,” I said, thinking how easily I was being maneuvered. “So it’s all planned out. May I ask why you are bothering so much?”

“Because,” Shani replied, “I don’t like having around me colleagues with crows in their bonnet.”

The rest house was beautiful, situated at an elevation of about five thousand feet in a beautifully manicured tea garden that looked like a green carpet spread on the hill slopes. A psychiatrist couple ran the place. Accommodation, food, and the ambiance were excellent. There was an arrangement with the tea company by which the guests could use the planter’s club facilities. The climate was invigorating. I rather liked the place and started enjoying the holiday.

I was given a thorough physical check up to start with. Subsequently the routine was quite simple. There would be about an hour’s session with the senior psychiatrist every morning. I was free after that. The planters were a friendly lot and I spent a great deal of time at the club.

There were crows around the area, of course, but they didn’t bother me.

When I asked the doctor what kind of problem I had, his reply was, “We don’t give labels to the conditions our guests are in.”

“Have you,” I asked, “ever come across any case like mine?”

“No. But once I had a patient who thought he was a crow.”

“What happened to him?”

“When I last saw him he was still a crow.”

I couldn’t help laughing.

“C’mon,” the doctor said seriously, “it’s not funny. The poor chap had totally lost touch with reality. Your case is different. You’re young and healthy. There may be some reason behind your present problem that we don’t know about yet. Let’s work together and see.”

The sessions were not particularly interesting. The doctor dug deep into my past, covering all kinds of subjects. To the best of my knowledge, none of my blood relatives ever had any psychiatric problems. Mine was a normal childhood except that my father who was in the army was reported missing at the border in 1971 and was never heard of again. But it didn’t really affect me. I was only four years old when he left home for the last time. That was shortly after my grandfather died. I had only a faint recollection of all those events.

We were at it for over a month when the doctor felt that I was better and said that I could take a break. A matter that bothered me was that Shani hadn’t telephoned even once while I was at the rest house. She might have been busy with her new assignment. She didn’t have as good an assistant as I had. But she could have found the time to make a short call. I didn’t phone her because there was some hesitation, perhaps a lack of confidence. After all, she was sitting on my chair and I was in a glorified mental hospital.

As I was leaving, the doctor said, “Remember, you’ve seen dozens of crows here but there hasn’t been any problem.”

“Yes, but my crow is back in the city,” the words came out of my mouth without any conscious thought. I noticed a shadow of disappointment on the psychiatrist’s face. He asked me to meet him again after one month.

Back at home I was having a nightcap when I heard the crow. That was strange. These birds normally flocked together in their nesting place after sunset. I tried to locate the creature by beaming a torch through the windows but that was futile. The ‘cawing’ went on from time to time. I didn’t go out to chase off the offender. All the doors were locked and there was no means for the bird to enter the house.

In the morning I thought of telephoning Shani but decided against it. My next destination was home and mother. She was overwhelmed by the surprise visit. As we sat chatting about many things, mother said, “A girl from your office visited me couple of weeks back. One called Shani.”

Now it was my turn to be astonished. “Why?” I asked.

“Said she had to make an offering at the temple. She knew I stay here and dropped in.”

“I had mentioned you to her.”

“You seem to have,” mother commented, “told her quite a lot. She spoke as though she knew us closely. Even asked questions about your father and grandfather.”

“We’ve worked together for seven years.”

“Nice girl. She has to visit the temple a couple of times more. I asked her to come here again.” After a short pause she asked, “Do you like her?”

“Yes.”

“Ever thought of marrying her?”

“I did,” I admitted. “But not any more.”

“But why? She seems to be the type for you.”

I changed the subject. How does one tell one’s mother that women don’t like men with crows in their bonnets?

And the crows arrived by the hordes in the afternoon.

It was mango season and they came for the ripe ones on the trees. They made a big racket, cawing and flying about and fighting among them. And in that ungainly crowd was the one from Cochin as well. He flew past the verandah a few times, staring at me angrily. The home visit turned out to be a nightmare. Mother probably didn’t notice. I would have liked to take her back with me for a few days, but was afraid that she might get to know about my problem.

Once back at Cochin I telephoned and thanked Shani for looking up mother. That was all. There was no talk about crows or the rest house or the office.

It was a miserable, lonely life. There was nothing to do. I hardly moved out of the house during daytime, but the bird came there on a few occasions. In the evenings, after the crows had returned to where ever they spent their nights, I would go to my club for a while. I was playing so badly at Bridge that my regular partners avoided me. It was difficult to concentrate on books or even TV.

Then one day the crow got inside the house.

The maid who came in the mornings to clean up and cook must have left a door open against my strict instructions. I was listening to music when the bird flew directly at me like a dive-bomber. He would have pecked me, perhaps at my eyes, if I hadn’t tilted the chair back and it toppled. The servant rushed in with a broom and chased off the intruder. When I berated her for being careless she said rather casually, “Sir, it’s only a crow and not a cobra.”

Now the moment of reckoning arrived. Suddenly there was the awareness that I couldn’t go back to the office again; it would be impossible to do any work. Perhaps some private practice was possible later on. 

When I told Shani my decision on phone, her matter-of-fact comment was, “I was expecting something like this.” After a brief pause she asked, “When do you plan to put in your papers?”

“May be soon,” I replied curtly. “But it won’t help you to get another promotion.”

There was silence at the other end.

“Sorry,” I apologized. “That was unfair on my part.”

It was a while before my colleague responded. “I would suggest,” she said, “that you wait till the leave is over. Anyway you have to see the doctor next week.”

So Shani and perhaps the entire office knew about that. But what really surprised me was her insisting on coming along with me to the rest house. When I introduced her, the psychiatrist said with a smile, “We speak on the telephone quite often.”

After the preliminaries the specialist started a brief lecture. “We are,” he said, “affected by things that happen to us, to others, and around us. And our background as well. Words, images, events stick in our subconscious mind. Children are more impressionable. Sometimes there is a carryover from youth. Your case has been quite a baffling one for me. But now, a rather unusual line of thinking has evolved.”

I was all attention.

“What happens to people when they die?” the doctor asked and without waiting for an answer, continued, “Many Hindus believe that there is a series of rebirths before the soul finally blends with God. The surviving relatives have funeral rites performed to make the transit of the departed smoother. If that is not done the soul wanders aimlessly without salvation. Being a Hindu you must be aware of these.”

“Yes.”

“There is also a conviction that wandering souls possess the bodies of crows. To put it in another way, many people think that at least some of the crows represent souls of the deceased. That is why after the final rites, a ball of rice is left out in the open for the crows to eat. Mind you, only the crows.”

I nodded.

“Now,” the doctor said, “we come to the crux of the matter. For all these we have to thank your colleague.”

“Shani?” I asked in surprise. “I thought she is an architect, not a psychiatrist.”

“Perhaps she’s in the wrong profession,” the specialist said. “ She spent a great deal of meaningful time with your mother.”

“That’s what the visits were for?”

“Yes,” Shani said rather shyly, and then the story emerged.

Even at the age of four I had keenly watched my father perform the last rites for my grandfather and had asked many questions. When the report came that father was missing, there was talk about the final religious function for him. Nothing was done at that time because it was not certain that he was dead. After seven years when he could have been legally surmised to be dead, the topic came up again.

“Yes,” I interrupted the narration. “I remember that clearly. In fact I was keen on the ceremony being performed. But mother refused to accept that father was no more. She believed that he was living at some holy place in the Himalayas. He was a pious man.”

The doctor nodded.

“I was,” I continued, “a young boy then and couldn’t insist.”

“Have you ever felt,” the psychiatrist asked, “bad about not carrying out your responsibility as a son?”

“Not really. But sometimes I’ve thought about it.”

“Perhaps the crow is a manifestation of a dormant guilt feeling.”

“Are you suggesting,” I asked rather impatiently, “that the bird is my father asking help for his salvation?”

“I’m presenting,” the doctor replied patiently, “a possible reason for your condition.”

“Let’s,” Shani intervened, “look at it from a different angle. Your father’s final rites haven’t been performed yet. As a son, it’s your duty to do that. It’s the normal custom that our community follows. Your mother also agrees now.”

It was a small function by the bank of the Periyar River, which was molten silver in the early morning sun. Only mother, Shani, a priest and I were present. After the rituals were over we clapped hands for the crows to come and eat the rice ball but there were no birds in view. Mother suddenly looked worried. It was a bad omen if the offering was not picked up.

Then it came. Just one crow.

“It’s the same one,” I blurted out. Everyone looked at me for a moment and then back at the bird. It finished eating and flew away.

“I hope,” I said with a sense of relief, almost in a prayer, “the crow doesn’t bother me again.”

“In case he does,” Shani responded, “we can easily handle that, together. If you like.”

I gave her a stunned look. She smiled and nodded.

Ends.

3 comments:

ER Ramachandran said...

Nice story Mr. Abraham.Good blend of psychiatry and subconscious guilt.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you ERR.

Sunita Mohan said...

Excellent read! I thoroughly enjoyed it.