They must have really hated me.
I was standing in front of my house one evening when I was called aside and suddenly dragged into a waiting vehicle. Firmly blocking all exits, three of the men started pounding me heavily inside the moving vehicle. The reason? According to my tormentors, this was my punishment for speaking out against a certain person’s corrupt practices. Unlike others who can either keep mum or speak in more respectable tones, I had opened my mouth – in a local bar, of all places.
Someone had warned, “Do keep quiet,” but I had arrogantly continued my foolish tirade and brought my present predicament upon myself. My pleas for mercy only resulted in an increased show of strength. After some more of this beating, I was thrown out of the running vehicle on the outskirts of Aizawl and left for dead.
I was in my prime, thirty years old, with a wife and children, and my health had always been sound. Hence I had never believed that a death blow would come as easily to the likes of me. But when I heard my hipbones crack as they hit against the pointed corner of the stone pavement and darkness started enveloping my consciousness, I knew that I would never be the same.
To talk about such matters is irksome for me. Neither is my being alive today the reason that prompts me to do so. In fact I fear that what I have to say might offend. But after that night – six months to the day today – when a passing vehicle picked up what they thought was a dead body, something very extraordinary took place in my life…which is why I have to bring up the past again.
The morning after my misadventure, my name, spelt incorrectly, appeared for the first time in my life in the newspapers in Aizawl. The relatives of my abductors turned up in full strength by my bedside, for a pseudo display of heartfelt pity and compassion, wiping their crocodile tears with my red hospital blanket. The eatables they brought along were exotic and unfamiliar while the huge amount of money they gave for the treatment was a secret. Some of them even threw in faith healers and spirituals in the bargain. They were certainly a sight to behold – though protesting that they were not worthy of absolution, they continued to plead forgiveness.
Even before I was in any fit state to forgive those who had nearly killed me, their families had already announced to the papers that I, a good Christian, had forgiven them. It must be true, for I am one of those who spend a month’s salary on drinks alone, one whom religious counselors see as “evil incarnate.” In my full senses I don’t recall forgiving anybody, unless, when lying half-dead by the roadside and well on my way to hell, I had metamorphosed into such a good Christian that I had perhaps forgiven my tormentors in a delirium. Unless such a thing had taken place, I don’t ever recall being a good Christian.
But their emissaries politely said, ”…they’re moneyed and you’ll never beat them in court. Therefore, forgive them while they ask for it. Besides, they intend to give you a large sum of money as well. Don’t you think this will be better for your wife and children?” Of course no one said outright, “You’ll be beaten black and blue if you don’t comply.” But I felt the implied threat nonetheless and so magnanimously gave my pardon.
So here I was, now a renowned “true Christian” who gave the other cheek even to those who hit him, still lying on the hospital bed and hoping for a cure. A month passed by thus and the doctors started losing hope of my recovery. So with the money earned by my noble act, I proceeded to bigger hospitals outside the state, but everywhere I went, the answer was the same, “You are too late.” Determined to walk again, I shopped for every specialist I knew. And when I ran out of money, my wife Muani sent what I needed, though I did not know from where she procured the sum. But when that money too petered out, I finally realized that I was destined to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, never to stand or walk again.
Just as I was intending to leave for home, I received Muani’s letter. “Dearest,” she wrote, “we had run out of money, but since we wanted you to come home cured, we sold our house. We’re now living on the ground floor of my uncle’s house. The money I’m sending is from the sale of our house. Although I wanted to keep this from you, I feared you would be at a loss on your return. So I decided to inform you about it. Please don’t be angry, I’ve done what I have only because I love you.”
As I read the letter I thought what a burden I had become for my family. Even if I returned, there was no hope for me in Aizawl. But the urge to set eyes on those who loved me – my wife and children – once again, and the desire to be buried in our local cemetery were motivation enough to lead me back to Aizawl.
So I came home. One person took me out from the taxi and another carried what was to be my lifelong throne – my wheelchair. Two other persons carried me down the steep flight of steps leading from the road higher up on the hill slope to the ground floor. Aware that I would never see Aizawl and its beauty again, I longingly and regretfully drank in the sights. Dark and cramped, our house didn’t offer much of a scenery. Inside, I sank back into my wheelchair. Muani put her arms around me while my two sons looked on, puzzled. Then the elder one spoke up, “Ka pa, can it run around?” while the younger one piped in, “Ka pa, get up, I want to try it out.” The future of our little family was something I couldn’t bring myself to ponder upon at that moment.
I got more visitors than I had bargained for. They wanted to know badly I had fared in the plains, whether the orthopaedic specialists were really good or not and whether I had given up the bottle. Then there were those, of course, who simply wanted to see me. They all came and closed ranks around me with pseudo compassion. And each time they prayed, I wondered why no one mentioned the milk I drank, but only chose to sermonize about my alcoholism and about the harsher trials that awaited me if I didn’t reform. The more they came, the more suffocated and depressed I felt.
They were others who tried to gain political mileage out of my misfortune by using me a lever to topple what they called a “corrupt government.” The weekly papers carried reports of the number of threat letters I supposedly received. Had it been possible, I might have left for good the Mizoram that I had come home to with such difficulty.
But the passing of time brought on other news and other headlines more sensational than mine, and very soon, the vultures left to seek more interesting fields. Their sudden concern barely lasted three months, and by the fourth, the only people who knew I existed were my wife and children.
My younger son fell in love with my wheelchair. Unable to have it, he started demanding a new cycle, but we couldn’t afford that either. We tried to repair his old one to make it look like new, but the efforts only made it worse. The front label on his cycle which proudly proclaimed “Thunderbird” fell off and he started crying. It was only when I said, “Wait Valte, don’t worry. I’ll stick the label onto my wheelchair and the day I get well, you may have it,” that he finally stopped crying. From then on my wheelchair was officially christened “Thunderbird”.
My daily routine was simple. At sunrise, my wife would help me sit up on my bed and place me on Thunderbird. Then my children would push me around. The younger one would ask, “Ka pa, you will get well tomorrow and I will be able to sit on Thunderbird, won’t I?” Sometimes I would answer “Yes”, sometimes “No”. What difference did it make? There wasn’t even scope for privacy in the toilet. I had no choice but to submit to the humiliating ministrations of my family. Even a dog, I thought, must have more use for its family than I.
Muani proved a good wife and took care of my needs without complaint, while my children still held me very dear. Muani’s salary took care of our needs and our two children were able to continue school. Each morning she would lead them by the hand out of the house and drop them off to school on the way to office. I would wheel myself up to the front door to see them off. From the top of the steps they would wave and call out, “Ka pa, bye bye” and I would wave in return, gazing at them until they were out of sight. Then with tears in my eyes and a heavy heart, I would turn back to the room, to be by myself for the rest of the day.
It was during these lonely times that the realization of just how useless I was and how hopeless and bleak my future was would hit me all the more. Every day I thought, “Today I will hang myself.” But the memory of my children waving at me and calling, “Ka pa, bye bye” would always stop me. My deep desire to see their faces once more when they returned home in the evening was what kept me alive.
Trying to keep myself happy and occupied, I read books with a vengeance and tutored myself to listen to music, forcing myself to find ways in which to enjoy it. I would fashion bamboo slivers into toothpicks and little pins to clip the betel nut preparation together. Sometimes I would sketch, and at other times make the arched framework for the children’s kites. Thus I passed my days.
But for one who had nothing to look forward to, the effort to be happy while remaing confined to a wheelchair the whole day was indeed a tedious one. The creator made a separate timekeeper for the dead, and another for the living, but for me who was neither dead nor alive, there seemed to be no yardstick with which to measure my time. In reality, I belonged to neither world – for though I lived in the world of the living, I could not partake of it fully.
The daily news began to bore me because it no longer had any meaning or impact on my life. Songs began to annoy me for they spoke of a world I could not reach. All other sounds irritated me as well. Nothing that issues from man is worth close scrutiny when one has to sit the whole day in contemplation of it.
And so, with the greatest of efforts I opened a window and turning my back on all manmade efforts to keep me happy, looked out, my face towards the sky…not knowing what to expect, yet knowing that I secretly did expect something.
There was nothing to see. Since the house was sandwiched between concrete buildings, the only sight that was of some interest was that of the Zemabawk locality some distance away. A sickly looking mango tree grew on the slop below the house, one of its upper branches almost reaching our window. Beyond this there was nothing else but the blues sky.
Counting the number of vehicles that entered Zemabawk was a convenient way to pass time. But to do this every day became much too trivial an occupation and soon I sought other ways to keep my mind busy. I observed carefully the nature of the caterpillars that steadily devoured the tender leaves of the mango tree below, then gazed at the gardens situated between Zemabawk and the Chite rivulet. This too bored me eventually and in despair, I again turned my face up to the silent blue sky.
Three martins flew by and went out of sight. When they returned they started flying in small circles within my range of vision. A fourth joined them. Softly calling out to each other, they flew high up into the sky playfully, then swooped down swiftly again without any fear. Just when I thought they would collide midair, they would skillfully and speedily manoeuvre and pass each other. Seemingly carefree and without a burden, the freedom they owned was one that was inexplicable to humans.
Watching these martins fly in the sky proved more interesting than watching the vehicles along Zemabawk road. But suddenly they ceased being a comfort and assumed a more tortuous role, that of compounding my frustration and misfortune with their provocative cries, “You are indeed in pain!”
I shouted at the top of my voice, “Fly away at once!” As though in compliance with my wish, they would be gone for a while and then return, infuriating me all the more. Scolding them was in vain. I had no catapult with me either, and when I tried closing my eyes, the sound of their soft calls sounded in my ears even more. When they flew close by, I would stick out my tongue at them but of course, to no avail.
One morning as I sat by my window, gazing up at the sky, the martins failed to appear as before. Perhaps my scolding had made them feel restrained and ill at ease. Their disappearance made me feel surprisingly lonely. I missed their presence and looking up at the blue sky, I waited for them to reappear. I thought of my life and I realized that ever since I started occupying myself with the martins, not once did the thought of taking my life ever occur to me. I now understood. I had been cursing the best friends that I had.
The next morning I sat waiting expectantly for them again, and sure enough the martins appeared at the usual time. “Oh you martins who are so pure of heart, I will never scold you again. Come closer and let’s discuss Siamkima’s Zalenna Ram and Keivawm’s Zoram Khawvel,” I jokingly called out to them. I felt as if my poor, heavy heart was eased of its burdens. The martins too appeared to be more excited than ever, their play and behaviour unduly pronounced and exaggerated. I teased them loudly about this and they laughed in reply.
I grew to learn their likes and dislikes and came to believe that they too learned to read my mind. They were ready to do anything to make me happy, and as we grew closer I confided all my problems to them. Sometimes they flew me and my Thunderbird high in the sky, and we would explore the length and breadth of Aizawl, looking at all that I wished to see. Had I felt up to it, I know they would have taken me on a tour around the world.
Every day I would fly with them, their small wings holding me up. The martins taught me freedom, and showed me how to be carefree. I grew to know each one of them individually and they never tired of what I had to say. But because of them I began to look forward to each new day.
But the more I ventured into this deep relationship with the martins, the more I withdrew from human beings, speaking very little to them. Muani began to worry, but as she understood how miserable my life was now, she let me be. The hopeful pleas of my younger son, “Ka pa, can you get up? I want to sit on Thunderbird,” grew louder in my ear day after day while my condition, instead of improving, deteriorated with each passing day.
With each passing of time – a month, a day, the batting of an eye was over in the ticking of a clock. But for me, noon and night dragged on and time was in no hurry whatsoever. I became more and more of a stranger to the rest of the world. I stopped talking to people altogether. But the martins and sparrows became more intimate, drawing me closer to them.
As the seasons changed, so did the birds. The martins disappeared and five months after my accident, the only bird that stayed back to be my companion was the humblest of the lot – the sparrow.
A few days back, after my family had left for the day, I opened the window to gaze out as was now my habit. Out of the flock, I had a favourite – a little sparrow which would immediately come near me to perch on the window curtain rod. Like a doctor examining his patient, the bird inclined its head and first carefully observed me, then my Thunderbird. Chirping loudly as though conveying something, it then hopped about on the mango tree below. I realized that the sparrow intended to build its nest on the most inconvenient spot, the branch that was closest to me.
The whole activity distressed me no end, for the bird was neither strong nor did it seem an expert in building a nest. Just watching its efforts made one believe that the task would never be accomplished. Without taking my eyes off the bird I wondered how it dared to carry out such a formidable task and how it would put its little home together. Trying to think of some easier way, I would sometimes suggest, “Why don’t you place the bigger twig below?”
The sparrow would fly off, come back with a twig in its beak, tuck it very carefully in to the nest and then fly off swiftly again in search of more. Collecting dry leaves, broom twigs, random pieces of cotton wool and so on, it would arrange them together as best as it could. The result was the semblance of a nest that was unsteady and obviously not strong enough to withstand a gust of wind. Thus the day ended.
I could hardly sleep that night as plans for building the nest filled my mind. Both of us were busy again the next day and by evening, the nest was finally complete. But it was not firm. When the sparrow tested it, the nest almost dislocated from its perch. It needed more props and support for balance.
Today too, as soon as my family left home, I resumed my vigil. When I opened the window the bird was already busy at work, trying to strengthen its nest. After a while, it flew off into the distance and did not return for a long while. I wondered what it would bring home this time. It soon returned, a twig in its beak, flying unsteadily under the weight, and then tried to place the twig between the fork of the branch that held its nest. Had it succeeded, the twig would have firmly held the nest in place. But no matter how careful it was, the twig fell.
The little sparrow retrieved it from the ground, perched on my windowsill, flew back to its nest and again tried to place the twig in the same place It fell again. The sparrow retrieved it again, and the cycle continued for at least ten times, with no success. And each time it picked up the twig, the little bird would approach me with it in its beak.
The whole thing started affecting me in a strange way. This little bird was trying to teach me something. If it dared to attempt the impossible, why should I still be sitting? All right, I suddenly thought, even if I fail I must at least make ten attempts to stand up.
Excruciating pain racked my lumbar region. I was drenched in sweat. The immediate thought that came to mind was that I had done something I was not supposed to do. Had there been anyone nearby I would have been told, don’t, you’ll aggravate your condition. But my only witness was the humble little sparrow perched before me, unbudging, watching. Again, I held the armrests of my wheelchair with my hands and tried to push myself up. Breathing heavily from the exertion I managed to lift my hips up from the chair. As I tried to support myself on my feeble legs my hipbones felt like they were being pierced with a dagger – so great was the pain. My legs experienced pins and needles, and I shivered out of sheer fatigue. As my strength could no longer sustain me I slumped back despairingly into my chair.
But the bird was still waiting, twig in beak, challenging me.
Breathlessly, I tried to chase it away, “Go, don’t wait for me. I just can’t do it.” But it refused to budge and kept looking at me as though spurring me on for another attempt.
Apprehensively, I tried to stand again, and this time my body protested even more than before. I moaned aliud in pain, but steadfastly kept my eyes on the sparrow fearing I might not succeed if I shifted my attention elsewhere. I garnered my full strength once more, and despite the pain, forced myself to stand again on my feet. I had thought I would never stand again, hence I was so excited that there was no time to despair or faint. I would go through this terrible ordeal. Instead of being wheelchair bound and alive, I would much prefer dying on my feet, I thought, and again made several attempts until I finally stood up awkwardly, holding on to the windowsill for support.
I was giddy with the intense pain and my vision clouded so much that I could not see clearly the sparrow before me. But I stood! I was no longer seated on Thunderbird! How strange it was. I was not sure whether the tears that trickled down my face were tears of pain or of happiness. Were the sounds emanating from my throat that of pain or of laughter? I didn’t know. Yet, I stood!
I recalled how I had been thrown out of the vehicle, and recalled too the sound of my hipbones breaking as I hit the parapet, and now, standing with only the sparrow for an audience, I wondered whether I was dreaming it all.
Enthusiastic as I was, my strength could not sustain me long. I dropped back on Thunderbird. The sparrow meanwhile flew off with the twig and again tried to support the nest with it. But a gust of wind blew at that moment and down it fell once more.
Seemingly in despair this time, the sparrow gazed down from its perch at the fallen twig but eventually flew down to retrieve it. Having done this it again came and perched before me. It willed me to indulge in my crazy attempt oonce more.
My mind was filled with despair and dread. Even if I did stand I wouldn’t be able to do so for long. Afraid to make another attempt, I thought maybe I should rest now and perhaps try tomorrow.
But the sparrow compelled me, so despite my fear I took a deep breath and tried again. The pain seemed to increase with each renewed attempt. But when I did stand up with all my strength behind me, it eased a bit and I could stand for a longer period. Even when I did sit down again, it was slow and deliberate, not sudden and heavy like before. The sparrow too flew to its nest with the twig and this time, succeeded in placing it on the fork of the branch, making its home as firm and steady as it had desired. How overjoyed we both were!
In order to prove that this wondrous event of my life was a reality and not a dream, I had to prove it, not to the sparrow but to my fellow men. Although I looked forward to Muani and the children’s homecoming, I was afraid to believe that I would be able to really stand before them. To prove that it was a reality I somehow repeatedly made myself stand up and despite my fatique, managed to successfully stand up on my own six times.
Evening came and my family returned home. I was aware that no matter how convincingly I told them of my achievement, they would not believe me. I had to make them see the real thing. Weak as I was, I secretly took a deep breath and gathered all my strength. I knew that I would be able to do it.
“Muani, Mama, come here,” I called. They all left whatever they were doing and came to me, surprise writ large on their faces. “I can stand up!” I announced, straining myself. They were at a loss for a reply. Muani thought I had gone out of my mind, so with tears in her eyes she put her arms around me and tenderly caressed my forhead. I was a sight to behold as I prepared myself physically and mentally to stand up once again.
As I exclaimed, “Now then!” I tightly gripped the armrest of Thunderbird with all my might and determinedly pushed myself up, arranging my weak legs as best as I could, oone hand on the windowsill. Muani put her hands under my arm and tried to help me, but I shouted, “Don’t touch me!” I focused my eyes on the nest outside my window. My pain now seemed to multiply tenfold when compared with what I had suffered before, and I felt darkness clouding over me, but I was almost standing. That terrible second was overcome and I stood as before, holding on to the windowsill. Praise be to the sparrow!
My wife cried as she held me, trembling with surprise and shock. My older son leapt up and down. “Ka pa… Ka pa… he stood… he stood!” he shoutedly loudly to the world outside. The younger one said calmly, “There! You said you could not get up, but you did!” and immediately started riding Thunderbird around like a cycle.
My older son quickly rushed back into the house. His loud announcement had not succeeded in calling anyone in. He looked at me carefully and enquired hopefully, “Ka pa, can you only stand?”
“I don’t know, Mama…” I was silent for a long while.
“You will be able to walk tomorrow, won’t you?”
“I don’t know. It all depends on that sparrow down there.”
Vanneihtluanga has written several short stories, plays, articles and essays. Keimah Leh Keimah and Neihfaka Rilbawm are collections of his creative writings as well as autobiographical pieces which are both humourous and thought provoking. Besides being a social worker and critic, he is also a successful entrepreneur, being owner and editor of Lengzem, a monthly magazine on popular culture, and joint owner of the Mizo television network Zonet.
Margaret Chalthantluangi Zama is a teacher by profession, working in the English department at
. Besides translating from Mizo to English, she has also written a short story, Zoey, and some unpublished poems. She has been an active social worker closely associated with disabled children and their parents in Mizoram. Dr. Zama’s translated piece reproduced here was published in 2004 in The Heart of the Matter. Mizoram University
Thunderbird was first published in Mizo as Thunderbird in Khuarel magazine in 1992.
Picture: Common rosefinch photographed by Sudhir Shivaram at the Blue Mountain National Park, Mizoram