The Neighbours

Banwari D. Prasad muted the TV, looked out the window. There’d been a noise. Must have been a door banged shut somewhere, he knew, but he was taking no chances. With three weeks’ worth of trash stinking by his gate, he couldn’t afford to.

He waited the usual second or two, listening for the truck, before turning back to the news. At least that was something to cheer about. Fifty-nine Chinese apps had just been banned by the government. A fitting response to their dirty games at the border. One would’ve thought they’d be humbled after the covid fiasco, but no, they had to—

The thump again!

And realization hit him. Banwari lurched to his feet, knees cracking, and ran for the door. The stench flooded him as he stepped out, and sure enough both the trashcans over by the gate lay toppled now, spilling out their rotten guts.

Heat flared through his cheeks, and he grabbed the cane from the rack, searching madly around for the culprit. The cat gaped back at him from its perch on the roof of his car, alert, keeping a leftover piece of God-knew-what pressed under one paw.

“You wretched thing!” Banwari screamed, charging at it, and the cat leaped down onto the side stairs and skittered up out of sight. Banwari dashed after it, panting, hoping the door to the terrace was latched. It wasn’t. He flung it open all the way, cursing, and thundered out, short of breath.

Beyond the far parapet, on the terrace of the adjoining house, stood his neighbour staring at him in annoyance, his hands folded before a tulsi plant in prayer.

“Thank your dear God I missed it, Ishwar,” Banwari barked at the man, striding forward. “Would’ve been dead today, I swear, if I hadn’t.”

The man bowed before the plant. “Don’t know what you’re shouting about.”

“About your bloody cat, you liar! What else?” He stamped his cane.

The neighbour turned to face him. “It’s not my cat, Banwari, and I have—”

“Oh, stop it now. I know you feed it everyday.”

“I do, yes. And so do a dozen other people in the street.”

“But it’s your place it comes back to. Stays the nights.”

The man laughed. “Now that I can’t do anything about. Can I?”

“You can,” Banwari said, stepping closer. “Mix poison in its food tonight. I’ll give it to you.”

Their eyes stayed locked for a moment. “It’s just a harmless little cat, Banwari. Why can’t you leave it—”

“You damn well know why.”

“And I told you the solution. Just keep all your stuff—”

“—inside? The chairs, shoes, garbage, my car. All my stuff inside?”

“Then, do as you wish,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Just don’t come crying to me all the time.” He turned to go.

“Time to open the shop, is it?” Banwari called out.

His face had lost all the calmness when the man turned around. “Yes. Got a problem with that too?”

He shook his head, relishing the impact. “Just wondering how hard it must be for you nowadays. First covid and now this new tension with them—”

“Cut it, Banwari. It’s none of your business.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t deal with the enemy if I was starving.”

“The people I deal with are not the enemy.”  

“They are killing our soldiers!”

“Their army is. And ours is paying them back in kind.”

Banwari stared at him, aghast. “What else you’d like them to do? Stand there watching. Getting killed?”

“I would like them all to go back home enjoy life if it were up to me, but it isn’t. Is it? So let them sort it out in the field, but don’t you drag the people into it. They are innocent.”

“Of course, coz they earn you a lot of money.”

“Well”—the man sighed, visibly tired—“if that’s all the brains you’ve got…” He shook his head, then turning around, walked away.

“The truth is bitter, Ishwar,” Banwari yelled after him. “Go. Go away sell those Chinese toys of yours—you traitor!”

The neighbour swivelled in the doorway. “Oh, thank your stars I do something at least, and pay my dues. It’s with that very money that morons like you get paid their free pensions, you good for nothing retard,” he spat. “And that’s the bitter truth.” He whirled back, and slammed the door close.

Banwari stood rooted, the pulse on his forehead twitching. Not twenty, or thirty, but thirty-five long years he had had to work for the government to earn his pension, and this bastard… this petty trader—

The bell rang at the gate below. He paced to the other side to check. His son stood in the street, back from the market, a big grocery bag slung over a shoulder, and more hanging from his scooter parked next to him. Banwari hurried down the stairs, the firm clatter of his cane marking each step, and unlocked the gate. Then he headed towards the porch, and stopped short.

The door there stood ajar.

Hell!

He walked over, eased the door open, and closed it behind him. The TV was on, still running on mute. He tiptoed past it to the dining table, eyes scanning every corner. Everything seemed undisturbed. He finally let out his breath, and leaned the cane against a chair. A rattle from behind made him jump, and he spun. The cat jerked its head up from the milk pot, its whiskers white, dripping. And next to it, on top of the gas stove, sat glistening under the light and steaming—its poop.

Something snapped inside Banwari’s throbbing head and he hollered, snatching a water bottle and hurling it at the cat with all his might. The cat dodged it, jumping aside, and the bottle hit the stove instead, bursting open, spattering the poop and water everywhere. Banwari reached for his cane. A second too late, for the cat had already flown past him towards the exit.

The door swung in just then, thrown open by his son, and it startled the cat. It swiveled around, confused for a moment. Just enough time for the lunging Banwari to take a swing at it.

The horrible mewling shriek that ripped the air as he connected felt music to his ears. And the cat writhed on the floor like an upturned cockroach before rolling back up and slipping out between his son’s legs.

“God!” he gasped, dropping the bags. “This cat… The garbage outside—”

Banwari nodded, slumping on the sofa. “There is more in the kitchen.”

His son groaned, rushing away to check.

“But I got the bastard this time!” he shouted, grinning. “You change my name if it ever walks back on—”

Someone yelled his name in the street. The bell rang.

Jaws clenched, Banwari strode out, and wrenched open the iron-gate.

His neighbour whirled from his car, nostrils flaring. “You savage!” he sputtered, rushing at him, as the car behind him screeched away, the limp cat lying in someone’s lap. “How dare you—”

“Take one more step,” Banwari growled, his hands curling into fists, “and I’ll show you how—you lying son of a bitch!”

Someone flitted into his vision from the side, and hurled a kick at the scooter. It crashed down just an inch from Banwari’s feet, a side view mirror snapping off it and flying away. “Don’t you talk to my father like that! You—” the neighbour’s teenage boy screamed at him.

But before Banwari could react, his own son barrelled past him, and launched himself at the boy. And the next moment, the two of them were rolling in the middle of the street, slapping and punching each other.

His neighbour ran to them, and so did others now gathering around. They pulled them apart, still thrashing about and swinging fists, and dragged them away from each other. But Banwari’s son wriggled out of their grip, and scooping a rock from the ground hurled it into the other house.

The loud shattering of glass made everyone go rigid for a moment. But then they jumped at him, and knocked him off his feet, pinning him to the ground. Banwari screamed, and his supporters rushed forward, tugging and shoving through the crowd, triggering a melee. The noise attracted more people, and soon enough the whole street was ringing with shouts and abuses, people kicking and punching one another blindly.

A horn blared – loud and long, cutting through all the mayhem, and everyone froze, mid-punch, mid-curse.

The truck’s hood poked into the street, and its familiar bring-out-your-trash record burst into the air. Banwari dropped the rock he was clutching, and dashed into his house, and so did everyone else, scurrying away like mice. His son was already in, picking up the trash and refilling the toppled cans.

Seconds later, Banwari stood before his gate, pulling his scooter back on stand, while his trashcans were being emptied into the truck. His neighbour was arguing with the truck driver a few steps away. Their eyes met. Banwari spat and looked away.

Back inside, he flopped onto the couch beside his son who sat there looking at the mute screen, “India United” flashing on top of it. The excited reporter had his mic held up to an important looking man behind whom stood a group of people waving Indian flags. It looked like the middle of a marketplace.

“What’s happening?” Banwari asked him, grabbing the remote.

He shrugged and got up. “I’ll clean up the kitchen,” he said, and went away, limping.

Banwari flexed his own hurt fingers, and pressed the mute off.

“—take us for eunuchs?” the man was shouting above the din. “Let’s show them what we are and kick them where it hurts the most. Let’s throw away and destroy everything that is made in that wretched country. ”

Banwari flipped over the TV remote in his hand. The Made-in-China sticker glared back at him. The crowd on the screen was now cheering a man pouring petrol on a huge pile of cellphones, clothes, and other things. And then he set fire to it.

Brushing the remote behind a cushion, Banwari stretched back in his seat as the flames rose higher and spread wider, a smile tugging at his lips.

Sundaram Chauhan

6 comments

  1. I really missed your writing! Such consistently great description. Really strong verbs used throughout. You hit one of my emotional buttons (cats in distress).

    I also thought this piece was an interesting look at the local-level, trickle-down effects of global conflicts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow so well written Sundaram,,, and I felt every scene very viscerally, as if i were an ant from the trash cans witnessing the melee above me.. I too squirmed and hoped nothing would happen to that poor cat (being a total cat lover) but it was important to the emotions and the whole intolerance, cycle on a smaller scale, while the larger one was being fought on TV and in the embittered hearts on both sides. You say so much…hint at such larger themes and all the while put the reader smack dab in the scene//mute OFF. Great writing and will love to read anything new you post in the future too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m happy you are writing again! You captured this chaos well. I am not a cat fan. Apologies to toconnell88 :0) For those of us in the global west (I’m an American in the UK) it’s vital to get views from the global east. Thanks for your work.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s