July 04, 2020
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The Spirit Of Uncle Vijay

It had seemed fitting to commemorate him in something living, something he himself had rescued with such typical kindness...

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The Spirit Of Uncle Vijay
R. Prasad
The Spirit Of Uncle Vijay
"Help me with this basket," called Sanjeev's mother. Her plastic basket was too small for the vegetables and rice, and one handle was broken. Her husband had brought back a good catch of fish earlier in the morning, and she'd been able to trade some for this other food. They'd eat well for a few days—if she could get the food home. Their hut was further up the beach, in the middle of the sprawling shanty town of flimsy makeshift buildings. "Sanjeev," she called again, "come and help."

But her seven-year-old son, Sanjeev, pretended not to hear, and ran ahead with his two younger brothers and the family dog, Vijay. Sanjeev had just found an old tennis ball, near where some bigger boys were playing cricket. The ball was split open, and no good to them anymore, so they'd said he could have it. It wobbled when you threw it and it didn't bounce or roll, but Sanjeev didn't care, and he knew Vijay wouldn't either. They had a ball, and they had days and days left to play with it before school started again.

"Catch, Vijay!" shouted Sanjeev, throwing the ball in front of the dog. But Vijay ignored the ball and let it land in the sand in front of him. The scruffy yellow dog was looking out to sea, his pointed ears pricked up, his black nose twitching. He whined, and fidgeted on his paws.

"What's wrong, Vijay?" said Sanjeev. Maybe the dog was looking for dad's fishing boat. "Dad came back earlier, remember," Sanjeev told him, pointing to the small wooden boat, tied up near some others. "He's gone into town."

But the dog would not be placated. Continuing to whine, he scampered between Sanjeev, his mother and his brothers, as if he was trying to round them all up. Vijay never behaved like this unless a thunderstorm was brewing, but today the sky was clear and blue, the air pleasantly warm with a light breeze.

Vijay was normally the most easy-going of dogs. He'd started life with no name, one of the many stray dogs that roamed the shanty town. Sanjeev's Uncle Vijay had found him as a puppy, wandering all alone up by the busy main road, and had persuaded Sanjeev's mother to take him into their small family hut as a pet. She'd called the puppy Moti, and he and Sanjeev, then three, had quickly become inseparable playmates. Then, a few weeks later, Uncle Vijay had been killed in a bus accident and Sanjeev's parents had decided to rename the puppy after him. No one could replace funny, open-hearted Uncle Vijay, but it had seemed fitting to commemorate him in something living, something he himself had rescued with such typical kindness.

Sanjeev's mother stopped to adjust her grip on the basket. Vijay scurried round behind her and made little darting jumps on the sand, trying to drive her onward up the beach. She looked at the sea. What was frightening the dog? There was nothing. The sea was calm and blue and... No! Something odd was happening. The sea was disappearing, rushing back towards the horizon in waves, at astonishing speed. Other people were noticing, shouting and pointing as more and more sand was exposed.

Sanjeev and his brothers turned and watched in amazement. The sea was drawing back way past the low tide mark, exposing a huge stretch of the normally unseen seabed. Sanjeev could see the silver bodies of stranded fish gleaming in the sunlight. Some people were rushing to gather up this unexpected harvest of free food. Sanjeev started to run after them, eager to explore this strange new playground.

But Vijay headed Sanjeev off, blocking his way, barking now. Vijay never barked. The dog's anxiety added to the mother's own uneasiness. "Stay with me," she ordered her boys, with unusual sternness, and even Sanjeev obeyed. Then she heard shouting behind her. Way up near the main road, people were standing on the flat roofs of the bigger concrete buildings that were up there, yelling and pointing out to the now-distant sea. She couldn't hear what they were shouting. She turned back to the sea. What were they pointing at? Now she saw it: a line of foaming white, filling the entire horizon. It was getting bigger. Nearer. She dropped the basket and, as vegetables and rice went everywhere, she tried to grab her three children. She could carry only two, but Sanjeev could run faster than she could. "RUN, SANJEEV!" she shouted, scooping up her two youngest sons in her arms. "RUN!"

Sanjeev ran, tennis ball forgotten. Everyone was turning and running now, surging through the chaotic maze of huts towards the main road. Sanjeev quickly overtook his mother. He turned to check she was behind him, but was swept up by the fleeing crowd. Where was mum? Where was everyone running to? Then he saw their family hut. Home. He veered away from the crowd and ran along the familiar muddy lane. He'd be safe at home. Mum would catch up with him there. His mother ran up through the shanty town and across the main road, a bewildered wailing boy in each arm, Vijay at her heels. But where was Sanjeev? She scanned the crowd ahead. Couldn't see him. But he must be ahead. He had to be. She reached one of the concrete housing compounds, still clutching her two youngest boys as the crowd swept her up the stairs to the flat roof. 'SANJEEV!' she yelled. She could not see him.

Sanjeev had almost reached their hut when Vijay caught up with him, a cannonball of yellow fur, barking and bounding at him, physically forcing him away from the hut, and up the beach. From the roof of the concrete building, Sanjeev's mother watched the three-metre-high wall of foaming water slam in from the sea with unbelievable speed and unstoppable power, instantly obliterating everything on the beach, blasting the shanty town into matchwood. She instinctively crouched, shielding the two boys as the massive wave crashed into the concrete building. A deafening impact. A towering plume of white spray, smashing down on them. Screaming. Screaming everywhere.

The mother, sprawled out flat and soaked to the skin, still had each boy gripped by the arm. The boys were terrified, drenched and crying. Still alive. The building had been high enough. Just. But Sanjeev? She staggered to her feet. Everywhere below was a rushing, swirling torrent of chaos and destruction. The terrible wave had rushed inland for another kilometre. Now it was pulling back, sweeping boats, cars, building wreckage and uprooted trees back out to sea. And people. Everywhere people. People screaming, people clinging onto railings, people swimming for their lives against the undertow. And people who were not screaming or clinging or swimming, and who never would again.

"SANJEEV!" she screamed. She turned to the other people on the roof, many of whom she knew. "Has anyone seen my son Sanjeev?" she implored, shouting above the water's roar.

"I thought I saw him running to your hut," said a neighbour. "I shouted to him, but he couldn't hear me. I'm sorry."

The mother's insides went cold. She hadn't told Sanjeev where to run to. And he had run home. As the wave retreated down the beach, the full extent of the devastation was exposed. Their entire sprawling neighbourhood of makeshift huts, which just minutes ago had been alive with noises and smells and colour and friendships and arguments and plans and ambitions and history, was now a totally flattened heap of sodden wreckage. Sanjeev would not have stood a chance. "MUM!" Sanjeev's mother spun round. And she saw him. Sanjeev was standing on the roof of the neighbouring concrete building, as drenched as she was, waving his arms at her. Beside him, keeping him back from the edge of the roof, was Vijay.

As soon as the wave had receded far enough, most people evacuated the roofs, some to search for lost family members, others to retreat further inland. No one knew whether there would be more waves but it didn't feel safe near the sea anymore.

Sanjeev ran to his mother. She clung to him, crying with joy and relief as he told her how Vijay had stopped him going to the hut and had made him run up to the concrete buildings. "We got onto the roof only just in time!" he gabbled, reliving the terrifying moment, nearly crying himself now.

"Vijay saved you!" she cried, letting go of him briefly to hug the wet dog. "Uncle Vijay's spirit is in this dog! I'm sure of it!"

Vijay whined and barked. He still seemed anxious and was still trying to chase them away from the coast.

"Come on," said the mother. "We must go and find dad." She picked up the youngest boy, Sanjeev took his other brother's hand, and together the family started to pick a path through the heaps of wreckage and the rivers of retreating seawater. Earlier that morning, the boys' father had gone to sell some of his catch at a fish market two kilometres inland. The mother was praying that they'd find him there.

  Sanjeev's father sat on the family's small pile of donated blankets, next to his three children and Vijay. For the hundredth time since he'd found his family staggering up the road, an intense feeling of relief and gratitude swept through him. Garbled news of the terrible wave had travelled fast and he'd been sprinting down towards the beach, out of his mind with worry, when he'd seen them. It was lucky they'd come so far to find him. Half an hour after the first wave, a second, even higher, even faster wall of water had struck the coast, killing most of those who had stayed behind and ripping the concrete buildings from their foundations. Three more waves had followed that morning, totally destroying anything and anyone left in their path. Now, two days later, the family was in a school hall a few kilometres from the beach. The school was a temporary home for them and hundreds of other families. "Dad," said Sanjeev, stroking the dog, "is Uncle Vijay's spirit really in Vijay? I mean really really?" His father thought for a moment before answering. His wife was absolutely convinced that this was so, that Uncle Vijay's spirit lived in Vijay and had saved Sanjeev. She had always been fond of the dog, but now she treated him with something approaching reverence. Sanjeev's father generally liked things to be logical and provable, and was content to be grateful to Vijay as the amazing dog he was; he wasn't sure there had to be a supernatural explanation for the dog's extraordinary courage and loyalty. But on the other hand, he was so relieved to have his family alive, he could believe in anything. "It's true for mum," he said. "And she usually knows more than we do. In any case, it's a nice thing to believe, isn't it?" "Yes," agreed Sanjeev, "it is. But Muthu had an uncle who died when he was little too. Why couldn't his uncle's spirit find a dog to be in and save him?" Muthu had been one of Sanjeev's school friends. One of many killed by the tsunami.

Sanjeev's father couldn't answer his son's question. All day yesterday, he'd helped to clear the bodies of men, women, children and babies. Many were people he recognised—friends, relatives, neighbours—and their faces had haunted his dreams all night. How was it that his wife and three children were all alive, when others had lost their entire families? If you believed that the survivors were especially blessed, rescued by spirits, did you have to believe that the non-survivors had been especially cursed, abandoned by spirits?

"I don't know," sighed Sanjeev's father, putting an arm round his son's shoulder. "I just don't know how these things work."

"I don't mind if I was saved by Uncle Vijay's spirit or by just Vijay," said Sanjeev. "But I wish something could have saved Muthu and the others." "I know," said his father. They sat without speaking for a minute. "Anyway," said Sanjeev, his busy mind moving onto a new thought, "even if Vijay is just a dog, he wouldn't have been here to save me if Uncle Vijay hadn't saved him from the roadside...."

"You're right," said his father, thinking it through aloud. "Uncle Vijay certainly saved you one way or another, even if it was just by being kind to a stray puppy all those years ago." He kissed his three sons and stood up. He would have to go out again soon. Back to the grisly, unending task of clearing up the chaos and the dead. He hadn't found any answers to Sanjeev's questions. But maybe Sanjeev had come up with something to make life and death seem less random and cruel. Even if dead people's spirits couldn't live on to help us, their acts of kindness could.

The boys' mother came into the hall carrying a box of basic food supplies—bananas, nuts and bread—which would just about keep the family going for another few days. The old cardboard box was too small and splitting down one corner. The father automatically started to go and assist his wife, but Sanjeev sprang to his feet. "Let me help you, mum," he called, running to her.

Sanjeev looked so keen, so eager to help, his father thought. So suddenly just like Uncle Vijay.

©John Fardell

(Excerpted from Higher Ground, edited by Anuj Goyal, Chrysalis Children's Books. www.highergroundproject.org.uk)

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