Two novellas by V.J.James : Laika and One-Legged Crow.
Few excerpts from these stunning novellas…(in translation). Hope they spread their sweetness across the world.
When the year 1957-58 was declared as the International Geophysical Year, both Russia and America, without each other’s knowledge, had started working on artificial satellites. Both parties spared no effort in spying on each other too. Yet, Russian space successes were always one step ahead of the game. It caused a grave injury to American pride that we succeeded in launching Sputnik, while US failed in putting in space a satellite weighing 2 kilograms. It was this defeat of the hitherto frontliner which motivated USA to establish NASA in 1958.
In the next decade, both the countries together contributed in sending almost 5000 artificial satellites to circle the earth. The credit of the first human in space in 1961 went to Russia while America conquered the moon in 1969- all a direct result of the invisible space race. It was during the early stages of the space feud, which extended for years on end, that Laika the pup arrived; with the historic assignment of being the first link in the space journey, and I ended up narrating her tale to Priyanka.
Though named Laika, the nomenclature was not referring a lone canine. Laika was the common name for the breed of hunting dogs in Northern forests of Russia and Scandinavian countries. Alsatian, Pomeranian, Daschund…like these divisions, we too named the pup after a specific breed. From among the mongrels caught from Moscow’s streets, after ‘interviewing’ many, did we choose Laika as the space traveller. Her kind was adept in hunting down small creatures and birds like squirrels and partridges. Howling wildly to indicate the presence of bigger animals, they were great enthusiasts in chasing and tiring out the preys, along with the owners. Though petite in appearance, their capacity to bark fiercely was legendary. That was why the breed got the name of ‘the one who barks’. They were very faithful and loving by nature. Besides, fitting her in the payload compartment was easy, considering her small size.
We Russians have a great liking for dogs. Most citizens consider owning high pedigree canines as a status symbol. The dogs are granted prominent positions within a household. Not only inside homes, but dogs have been companions in Russia’s scientific experiments also. It was because its blood circulatory system and respiratory mechanism were similar to that of a human being, that a dog was chosen as the first space traveler. Although, considering the resilience and fortitude to overcome extreme cold and hunger, many street dogs were trapped and some canines were purchased from owners, the cast lots was in favour of Laika, due to her light weight, obedience and her non-ambivalence towards the special space food.
Irrespective of all the tricks up their sleeves, four adroit dog catchers could not snare this super smart little pup. She eluded their ruses many times. The catchers became provoked and determined to snag her in their nets by all means. By the time she was caught by the shore of a frozen lake, the dog trappers were perspiring even in the chill. That was the artificial lake we visited often in Moscow. Made by the arduous efforts of hundreds of political prisoners over a matter of years, that lake had a major influence in Russia’s ecology.
On hearing the finer details, Priyanka shot an array of questions.
‘What food do you give her? Mutton, fish?’
‘No dear,’ I replied, ‘a dog going to space cannot take fish or meat along. We give her a special gelatinized form of food.’
‘Where does she sleep, Papa?’
‘Inside a canister! She is very smart. So smart that she does not create a ruckus or get agitated like other dogs. Do you know what we tried last week? We made her don a space suit and conducted experiments inside a plane flying at high altitudes. There are so many more experiments pending trial…’
Priyanka, adept in the world of imagination, went on visualizing a space-suit clad dog. Insisting on seeing a picture, she made me sketch the scene.
‘Huh! What’s this? A mouse?’
Since I was poor in drawing, the dog I depicted was pathetically resembling a mouse!
Even Engineering Drawing had always been scary for me.
‘Today happens to be Sunday, right?’ To save face, I attempted a ploy. ‘See, if one sketches a dog on a Sunday, it will look like a mouse!’
‘Good that nobody sketched your picture today, Papa. Wonder which creature it would have resembled!’
When the guile, tried to deceive the innocence of childhood, was returned with its edge broken, I was rendered answerless. Yet, Priyanka did not abandon my dog belonging to the mouse species.
That night the child slept after listening to many more stories related to Laika.
At the very bottom of the letter, there was an underlined reminder to Amma about feeding the One-legged Crow.
Though Amma fed all the crows, she had a special care for the one-legged one. Especially because Simon and his father had nurtured it until the little fledgling could spread its wings. It could neither land in places where other crows frequented nor maneuver itself and snatch a morsel of food. The leftovers were its sole hope. But chances for such crumbs were very small in a village. And so, Amma would always put aside something for the One-legged Crow. The bird too was aware of the routine. Without being the part of the raucous crowd, it would wait patiently in the anointed place, for its turn.
Apart from the crow, there was a squirrel too in the yard, that Amma fed regularly. There was a story behind the squirrel becoming a frequent guest. Once as it was relishing the rice drying on the palm-frond mattress, a cat had pounced on it. It was a smart aleck of a feline! If any dog wandered into the yard when it had given birth to its litter, the cat would unleash a terrible assault on the invader. It would scratch, hiss and yowl terribly. Due to the unexpected and ferocious nature of the attack, any mighty dog would lose its equanimity and flee for its life! The squirrel had been caught in the jaws of that canny cat!
Amma had somehow managed to salvage the squirrel from the fangs of the feline. The squirrel had bitten Amma desperately as it thrashed around for its life. A squirrel’s bite caused an intense, stinging pain. In spite of the agony, Amma was adamant on her life saving mission. The squirrel was on the verge of death, its neck mangled and bleeding. Ensuring water for the wretched creature, applying butter on the wounds, she murmured prayers while it lay on her palm and caressed it tenderly. Like a dead person resurrecting, the squirrel regained its life.
For a fortnight, the squirrel stayed close to Amma. On being able to climb trees, it scampered back but returned every day to eat cooked rice directly from Amma’s hands. One would be wonderstruck at the intimacy between animals and humans observing such interactions. Amma looked after the One-legged Crow and squirrel with the same dedication with which she cared for Simon. The pristine goodness of the village did not envisage distances between humans, animals or trees.
After writing the letter to his mother, Simon wrote in his daily diary with his black pen. It was a habit instilled in him from the ‘moral studies’ class at school. Then he scrawled a crow’s picture on the diary page too. There were many pictures scattered across the diary. Unconsciously, each picture would encapsulate the day’s poignancy. The last picture he sketched depicted the pang of separation in a dry, desolate background. His moral studies teacher at school had intoned that regular habits of writing and drawing helped to overcome inhibitions and even gain a mastery over both. Simon had used his golden pen for diary writing until now.
Now that Simon had to use the black pen, he was vexed at the start, but slowly the heavy burden seemed to move away. The humungous fears turned to be deceptive. It was easy to write with the black pen. There was an allure and elegance about the alphabets it crafted. Simon decided to use the pen for his immediate requirements until he visited home.
Simon’s hostel room was in the third floor. Intermittently, the resounding boom marking time from the tall tower could be heard. Especially during the nights, when all other sounds died down and nature stilled, the chime of the clock rang out louder and clearer. Since Simon was in the floor whose window opened out to the clock-tower, it was probably he who heard the time ring out first, feeling it most powerfully. Every time the clock tolled the time, Simon stared at it through the window. He saw the divine form standing with the hands spread over time.
Simon imagined sprouting two wings and taking a single flight from the hostel and landing at the zenith of the monument. In a way, it was predestined that he lived in such close proximity with the structure. The tower lured him to the days he spent with his Appan. It brought to mind Mesthiri, Outha and the village. Ruminating that Outha will be watching the same tower, which he watched at close distance, through his binoculars back in the village, Simon felt the distance between him and his home dwindling fast to become nullified. He visualized a hanging bridge connecting the acme of the clock-tower to the porch of his village home.