A small stream that rumbled past the small shack that served only tea and fritters had dried up in the late summers and the birds and the deer that flocked close to the shack for their drink were now moving farther away from the stream and towards the river that fed it to quench their thirst. But the same summers that had extended beyond their usual date were drawing in people from all across the deep basin below that sweltered from the absent rains and this little shack that for the moment stood next to a dried stream was busy serving tea and fritters and nothing that could add to the many wrappers and bottles that the people brought with them. And it was the fritters that kept people hanging around waiting for fresh batter-dipped vegetables to take their dip in the boiling oil and emerge golden, crisp, and smoking. For Anga, the man who owned and ran the shop it was a time to make more money, but it also meant not being where the onset of rains and the drying up of tourists allowed him to go.
Bisma was a village tucked away into the folds of the hills some hundred kilometers away, of which a bus shaved off around ninety five, leaving him to cover the rest on foot. But he seldom had to walk it alone, for where the bus dropped him to follow the main road, and for him to take the goat trail that started from the parting in the parapets leapt down with an enthusiasm that matched his own, there stood a little shack. Not unlike his own, but one that didn’t expect a lot of customers on a day but made up for it by being at a point that saw buses and a few cars move past throughout the year. Unlike Anga’s shack that stayed open for a few months of the year, this other shack that belonged to his childhood friend was closer home. And serviced round the year. And once Anga got down at that point, he would hug his friend, help him fold up the shop early for the day, and the two would together walk the distance home. Each filling in the other on the three or four months since they had last met.
This year, however, the customers kept coming and Anga kept pushing off shutting down his shack and boarding the bus to his village. And every night he would wash up, count the money, tie them up to the end of his kurta, and walk up the steps on the opposite side of the hill to where he had taken up a room over the temple and shared it with the priest, a dog, and a few stray chicken. The priest would look forward to the fritters that were left from the day, and Anga would look forward to the offerings of laddoos and rice puffs that the villagers made to the temple’s deity. Somewhere late in the evening the two would cook, sing songs, and doze off. Protected by the deity but mostly by the dog.
The season wore on, and Anga wondered if the extra money was worth the time he was spending away from his village. He would have to be back by early March and that would mean that he would get fewer months at home, and his own daughter who was born just a year back would see even less of him. The night of the day when business had been brisk, he walked back to count the money, and reached a figure that was substantial enough to live on the the next few months, even without having to work in the fields of his village that paid him a little extra till it was time for him to return. And so the next day, he packed up his bags, said his goodbye to the priest and promising to return with cow’s ghee when he came back, the boarded the bus and settled down for the journey back home.
At the point where the bus dropped him, Anga was surprised to see the shack closed and bolted, and he walked the rest of the distance with a strange fear and foreboding clamping down his legs and slowing his pace, when all the wanted to do was to reach his home faster. He had not imagined walking the distance alone and so had taken on more load than a single person could carry easily, having made a trip to the village near the temple and bought clothes and toys for his family. But finally, he made it home and having met his own family, and given the gifts to his daughter and the case of bidis to his father, he stepped out to meet his friend who ran the shack. But his wife stopped him before he could leave, telling him that the man had found a job in the city and had been living there since the past few months. Anga was both relieved and a little saddened but with his free months stretching in front of him, he decided to go over to the city before returning to his own shack and the temple and the village and the dog.
But then came the rains. And for weeks it rained like it hadn’t rained in the living memory of Bisma or any of the surrounding villages. When the winters followed, they too took a cue from the weather that had preceded them, and bore down harsh and unforgiving on the residents — humans, cattle, jungle animals. The birds were silent and absent for almost half the spring that had come only in name. So when Anga found that he was nearing the end of his savings, he walked up the goat path and opened the shack his friend had abandoned. The place needed some work before he could start serving tea and fritters again, but with the traffic now back on the roads, he managed to do enough business to meet his family’s needs. With the few extra rupees he had left, and with more coming in for daily expenses, he put an extra bench overlooking the valley, and set up a small stove to cook lunch. And soon the place became a scheduled halt for the bus drivers who found warm daal, vegetables, and rotis. And the passengers who didn’t have a long distance to go to reach their own homes and meals, took the time having tea and the famous fritters. But between his new-found abundance, Anga couldn’t but stop thinking of his own shack, and of his friend who he feared might return any day to take his place back. So one day, he shut down the place for two days, hung up a sign that informed the people that the place would be open two days later, and boarded a bus to the city. There he found his friend, who lived in a room with his wife and son, and told him about the shack. The friend didn’t mind it at all, and told him that the work he had found was at a factory that offered good money, but importantly, free schooling for his son. But Anga persuaded him to take some money for the shack so he could run it thinking of it as his own.
With that worry off his head, Anga now boarded a bus to his old shack. And on reaching, he found it open and with a few customers around. The stream was flowing under the sun, and was sparkling like it did in his thoughts over the last few months. Inside, he saw the priest frying fritters and making tea. But on seeing him, the priest ran out and hugged him and apologised for taking over the shack. But as he hadn’t returned around the time the tourists started returning, he thought it was the only way to continue making a living as the villagers had long left their homes when the rains had caused a massive landslide, burying their fields and even half of the temple.
When Anga returned home, with a few rupees that the priest had forced on him to take away the guilt of taking over his shack, it was to his own shack, to his daughter and his family and village. The only thing he missed when his old life came visiting in his thoughts, were the stream, the dog, and the walk to his village with his friend.
Elsewhere, the friend and the priest missed a little of something from their own old lives as well. But they all carried on living, knowing it was in the past now.