Story 75: Doghouse

WHEN I CALLED HIM on the phone and asked for directions from Dhavaleshwaram to his house in Palem West, Mr Yug Awasthi laughed heartily. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t possibly tell you that.’ I might have asked him to recite the salient properties of the Binomial Theorem.

‘All I know is that you catch any bus that leaves Dhavaleshwaram,’ he told me helpfully, ‘and tell the conductor you want to get off at Rudrakshapalem.’

But what was I to do after that? Did he not know the way to his own house?

Again his laughter boomed over the line. ‘Much easier to ask around,’ he said. ‘I am in the same street as the church. Fourth or fifth house down.’

‘Anything that I can look for once I am on the street?’

‘No,’ he said wonderingly. ‘No… Oh yes. Yes, you should see a blush red car parked right outside.’

I considered asking him what kind of car it was, but thought the better of it.

As it turned out, finding the way to Yug Awasthi’s house was simpler than it had seemed. The conductor on the bus was chatty, and when he came to know that I was on assignment to interview the husband of the late novelist Mrs Ragini Awasthi, he gave me detailed instructions.

The blush red car was a Maruti Zen. I pulled out my badge and wore it around my neck as I opened the gate. At the end of a cobblestoned path, in front of his front door, a seventy year old man waved his walking stick at me.

‘Hello there!’ he said. ‘Glad you found your way here okay.’

I waved back and hurried along, sticking one thumb under the strap of my backpack as it rested on my left shoulder. It had a water bottle, a notepad, two pens, a recorder – and a couple of back issues of our magazine in case Mr Awasthi wanted to see. The bag’s right strap had come undone a couple of weeks ago, and Sushma had been after my life to buy a new one. Perhaps if this piece got published, and if the freelance contract turned permanent…

Up close, Mr Yug Awasthi was a sturdy, firm man of about five-foot-seven. He carried his walking stick with ease, and hardly rested his weight upon it. His skin was a light yellow, and his eyes carried the queer mixture of brightness and despair that I had seen so often before in men who had served in the army. I’d looked up Mr Yug Awasthi’s record – fifteen years of service, followed by a long sequence of prestigious positions in the semi-government sector. He had retired twelve years ago.

‘Come!’ he said. ‘Come, young man. Call me Yug.’

His living room was sparsely furnished, with a small and compact four-piece sofa set arranged around a square glass-topped coffee table. A copy of the twentieth anniversary edition of Palem Nights sat on it, with a bookmark sticking out. I watched the walls for pictures from Mr Awasthi’s past, and instead found paintings of stormy seascapes.

‘Something I do in my spare time,’ my host told me as he took the two-seater and waved me into one of the smaller couches. The fact that there was no television in the room threw me off a bit.

‘They’re very nice,’ I mumbled, giving him my card.

‘Dinesh Narayan,’ he said, reading off my name. ‘Senior reporter, Outlook. Are you a relative of Swami Narayan, the writer?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘He was my grandfather.’

Mr Yug Awasthi’s eyes twinkled with mischief at this information. ‘Let me guess, your father decided he would have nothing to do with writing.’

I laughed. ‘He was a site engineer at the barrage for most of his life. He did keep a journal.’

‘Oh, come now. You and I both know journaling doesn’t count. Would you like some water?’

During the small talk that followed, I took a better look at the man. He was dressed in a plain set of creamy white kurta-pyjamas. He had a shockingly full head of thick, curly white hair which had not been combed in a while. His hands were shorn of rings, but he had fingers that still carried old gunpowder scars. He brought out a bottle of cool water from the fridge and placed it on the coffee table, alongside two empty steel glasses.

‘I am surprised you came all the way here,’ he said. ‘Most journalists nowadays just call on the phone. And they ask me to send along a picture of her.’

‘I was in Dhavaleshwaram for another story, sir,’ I told him. ‘My editor thought it would be nice if I could get a selfie with you.’

‘And the book of course!’ he said, chuckling.

‘Yes, of course. If you have any of the older editions, we could perhaps lay them out here on this table – or on the floor even. Will be nice to see all the covers down the years.’

‘Yes,’ said Mr Awasthi. ‘Yes, that would be rather nice. I have all eighteen editions, of course.’ He kicked the leg of the table, as if he were chiding it. ‘This is not big enough to hold them all. Maybe on the dining table inside.’

‘Sure.’ I pulled out my notebook and the voice recorder, watching him tentatively.

He shook his head at the latter. ‘I get nervous when the tape’s rolling,’ he said. ‘I have the worst case of stage fright. Can you imagine? I shot down people in Kargil without batting an eyelid. But ask me to speak to an audience and I clam up like a shell. Do you know, I was passed up for promotion twice because of it. Twice!’ His eyes stared impassively into the distance for a moment, even as his glassy lips continued to smile. Then he looked down at the book with love. ‘Good thing we never needed the money.’

I put the recorder back into my bag, and brought out my good pen. I asked him all the regular, tiresome questions: how did Ragini Madam first get the idea for Palem Nights? How many publishers had rejected the book before Doghouse was born? How much was the initial seed investment?

All of this was already common knowledge. The story of how Ragini and Yug got married in Dhavaleshwaram and stopped in Palem quite out of accident – their car had a flat tyre – how they decided to take a walk through the village, how they were sitting on the shore of Ellamma Cheruvu when Ragini reportedly struck herself on the forehead and said, ‘This is it! This is my village!’

How they made a habit of vacationing in Palem for a month every year no matter where Yug’s jobs took them; how, over a period of seven years, Ragini wrote and rewrote the first draft of the book; how they then began the painful process of convincing publishers to take a punt on it; how, in a fit of spirited anger one dismal evening by the lake, Yug had declared that he would publish Ragini’s novel if no one did, even if he had to create a publishing company to do so.

‘Why doghouse?’ I asked him now, as his animated eyes came back to rest at the end of his recounting of long-gone events.

‘Oh, it was just a private joke between Ragini and me,’ Yug said, laughing. ‘It was more of a fuck you to the publishing industry, you know. The way we imagined it, we’d publish maybe a hundred copies, give them to all our friends, and be done with it. Move on with our lives.’

He swore with gusto, with none of the latent hesitation or propriety that accompanied the f-word in the lips of older people. He swore with a healthy mixture of indignation and good humour. His voice was rich and full of verve, with no tremors of age or disease punctuating his sentences.

We recalled together the rest of the Palem Nights story in brief: one of the friends that they had distributed the book to, of course, was Marie Desouza, the head of the CBSE board at the time. She liked it so much that she pulled a few strings, and the following year, Palem Nights’s third and fourth chapters appeared as supplementary reading for ninth grade students in schools across the country.

Doghouse Publishing received royalties that amounted to –

‘It wasn’t much that first year,’ said Yug Awasthi. He held his walking stick between his legs, one hand placed over the other, fingers wrapped around the handle. ‘Just two chapters, you know. So they had this proration formula and they said oh, this book isn’t even published, think of all the readers we’re getting you, you have to be happy with whatever we give you, that sort of thing. Your typical government red-tape bullshit. They gave us a check for two thousand rupees.’

‘Still,’ I said. ‘It wasn’t nothing.’

‘Oh, oh, it wasn’t nothing, absolutely. My salary that year was about ten thousand rupees for sitting on the board at ITC. So no, it wasn’t nothing. Our entire print run cost at Doghouse that year was seven hundred rupees or so.’

‘See, that’s a nice profit, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, rather neat,’ Yug admitted. ‘But it was far less than the book deserved. They did the honourable thing and waived income tax on it – made it some sort of gift. So there’s that.’

‘And the following year, of course, you got the big offer from Penguin.’

Yug looked me in the eye and grinned widely. His teeth were picture-perfect, white as sugar. I didn’t know why, but I looked for a golden canine on either side of his jaw, and was disappointed when I didn’t find it.

‘Yeah, and we threw them out the door.’

‘That must have taken courage, to reject such a big offer from such a big publisher.’

‘Ragini wanted to take it,’ said Yug. ‘She wanted to. And by god, I wanted to too! If I was thinking straight that night, I would have said look, this is more money than either of us would ever earn in our lives. Let’s take it and run. But I am a soldier, you know. I have a soldier’s ego. This same company had refused to reply to our emails just two years ago. Not even a form rejection note from a junior editor! And now the CEO was calling her madam, calling me Major and all that. He didn’t know I hate being called Major.

‘So it was pure ego that made me say no. What changed in these two years, I wanted to know. It’s the same book. It’s the same damned book!’ He twirled his moustache with relish. ‘So I told them to go back and wallow in their hole. If you’re willing to pay me this much for the book, I am convinced that it is worth at least ten times as much.’

I let him speak a bit more, as he recalled the various licensing deals that he pursued and got for Palem Nights over the next five years. Film. Translation. Graphic Novel. Serialization. A board game. A video game. Now a TV series in the works.

‘There has been plenty of speculation on just what genre the book was originally meant to be,’ I said, after a suitable pause had occurred in the conversation. ‘Did Ragini Madam write it as erotica? On the surface there is eroticism in it – save for those two chapters.’

‘Plenty of eroticism,’ said Yug Awasthi, smiling. ‘We were just married then, you know. But there is more to it than that. Those bastards at the publishing houses saw nothing underneath. It’s like seeing Ellamma Cheruvu and saying, you know, there’s a lake. I mean yes, it is a lake, but it is not just a lake.’

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Right. Did you read it as soon as she finished it? Were you her first reader?’

Yug shook his head. ‘God, no! I read it only after it had been rejected all around. And I said to myself, this is not that bad.’

‘But you were mostly driven by anger, weren’t you? You’d spoken about it before, in other interviews.’

‘Damn straight,’ he said, laughing. ‘No one rejects my wife twenty times. By then it had become personal. And you don’t get personal with me.’

‘There are elements of horror in it too,’ I said, looking down at the book. ‘Especially where the creature emerges from the lake, and follows the honeymooning couple around the village. That’s a very eerie scene, isn’t it?’

‘Mm hmm. Very eerie. Yes.’

‘Some critics have speculated that Ragini Madam intended the couple in the novel to be images of you and her.’ I paused delicately, trying to gauge his expression. How far could I push it? ‘And the creature that is following them – it is – what do you think the creature represents?’

‘Oh, crap, I don’t know,’ said Yug Awasthi. ‘I never asked her and she never told me. As for these critics – they don’t know what they’re talking about. I ask you – can a novel not be just a story? Does everything in the book need to be a reflection of who Ragini was, who I was? She wrote the book over a seven-year period. There is plenty of material there if you want to dig into it.’

‘You never had kids, Ragini Madam and you.’

‘No,’ he said placidly, without pain in his face. ‘It was her decision.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘I seem to recall that in one of her old interviews she said she had always wanted to but couldn’t.’

‘Really?’ said Yug Awasthi, bringing his thick grey eyebrows together into a frown. ‘That is news to me. I’d always wanted to have kids, and by god we could have had five or six if it were left to me. But Ragini – she was a fickle creature, you know. Writers are like that. She’d say this today, that tomorrow. On Monday she’d say we should have kids. On Tuesday she’d be terrified of it. Do you have kids, Dinesh?’

‘No, sir, I don’t.’


‘Yes, sir.’

‘How long?’

‘Three years now.’

‘Ah,’ he said tapping on the handle of his walking stick. ‘This is the time to start thinking. It takes a year to be sure of it, then it takes a year to bring the child out even if all goes well. So you’re looking at a good two years, you know. How many would you like?’

‘We’re not sure if we should, sir,’ I said. ‘I am the unsure one in my marriage.’

‘Oh, if the wife is sure, I’d say go for it. There is very little for fathers to do, you know. And it will calm you down. That hot young blood of yours – that will cool down a bit.’ He looked at me sideways and grinned. ‘I sometimes think that if we had had children, we may never have built Doghouse. Ragini would say in her later years that Doghouse is her child.’

‘Doghouse? Not Palem Nights?’

‘That’s right. Doghouse. Because Palem Nights is her book. Doghouse is ours.’

* * *

Mr Awasthi made me stay back for lunch. A manservant let himself into the house at around one o’clock with a wicker basket in his hand. He did not acknowledge my presence.

While eating Mr Awasthi regaled me with stories of his time in the armed forces: how he once had to sleep in a slug-infested marsh, how he once singlehandedly saved the lives of twenty three jawaans in his platoon by refusing to give an order to shoot, how he got passed a fireball by a senior officer that got hotter and hotter until it was time for one of them to go, how he had taken it on the chin and not told a soul about it until now (and even now he would name no names), how he had built a life for himself outside of the force, how he had seen five different industries from up close and contributed to their progress, how foolish and short-thinking today’s young people are (this with a keen eye trained on me), how he came to be known as the husband of Ragini Awasthi in his later years, how he had taken it upon himself – after her death – to keep her memory alive with Doghouse…

We sat at his dining table in one of the inner rooms, set against a glass cutlery cabinet. I saw one picture of him and Ragini in one of the cabinet’s higher shelves, an old, browned photograph of both of them sitting by a lake that I guessed was Ellamma Cheruvu.

Wiping his mouth with his napkin, he followed my gaze. Food had made him less belligerent.

In a soft voice he said, ‘I do miss her.’

‘I am sorry,’ I replied.

‘We’d always assumed that I’d be the first to go, you know,’ he said, watching the photograph. ‘Especially when I was in the force. And I have all these conditions – blood pressure, diabetes… my body is battered from all that fighting. Whereas she – she never seemed to age a day.’

He was wrong about that, of course. He was seeing her with a husband’s eye. Comparing the pictures that I’d seen of Ragini with this one in the dining room, she had aged. Her hair had greyed, she had put on weight, her skin had loosened. Between the two of them, it was actually him who had changed little. If he would dye his hair black or brown today, he would pass for his younger self. She would not.

‘Can I take a picture of that?’ I asked, nodding up at the shelf.

‘Of course,’ he said, and brought it down for me.

The dining room had more paintings hung on the wall. There was more variety in these than the ones I’d seen in the front room. A calm sea. A tree-lined street. A rain-coated tar road. A disused well and a temple in the background, both of which looked familiar.

‘Is that…’

‘Yes, the old shivalayam,’ replied Yug Awasthi. ‘I painted it just last month.’

‘These are very good! I didn’t know that you painted.’

I could tell that my enthusiasm pleased him, though he tried his best not to let it show. He shrugged. ‘Ragini was struggling to write her second book.’

I smiled, suddenly interested. ‘So there was a second book in the works?’

‘Yes,’ said Yug. ‘I don’t know if I should say in the works, because she was terrified about getting started. When they gave Palem Nights the Sahitya Akademi Award, I remember her bursting into tears and saying oh no, oh no, what have they done?

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I didn’t either,’ said Yug, his voice softer still. His eyes seemed to have lost some of their gleam. He looked like someone who had been denied a nap. ‘We tried everything. We moved cities. We came and stayed here for a whole year. I’d bring her notebooks – these notebooks that are small and light, you know? With good paper? Very expensive.’

I nodded.

‘And each time I brought her a notebook she would go to work on it, fill up the first page, the second page, and then throw it with despair against the wall. I’d pick it up. The first two or three books I threw in the rubbish bin, but then I thought what a waste of good paper. I began to sketch.’

‘How long ago was this?’

‘Oh, I’d say twelve years?’ he said, scrunching up his brow in an effort to remember. ‘Retirement year. I began with a regular pencil, you know. Just small things at first. A rock. Ragini’s hair. A rice cooker. The lake.’

‘You drew the lake?’

Yug looked up at me and smiled. ‘I’ve done a sketch every night – more or less – over the last twelve years. Of course I drew the lake. I must have drawn it a hundred times.’

He asked if I’d like to see some of his paintings, and of course I said yes. He took me into the two inner bedrooms in turn. There was the lake in the light of the summer son. There it was under overhanging clouds. There it was, lashed by rain. There it was, just a shimmering grey blob in the moonlight.

Then he took me to what he called his loft, which were two adjoining rooms on the terrace. One of these was his studio, and the other contained stacks upon stacks of canvases. And notebooks. These two rooms had walls filled with paintings too – of Ragini.

Ragini looking over her shoulder. Ragini knitting a sweater. Ragini watching over milk on a stove. Ragini looking up at the sky and laughing.

Somewhere in one dark corner, there was a sheet of paper pasted on the wall, something that had been torn off a notebook. It showed a young man with half his face covered in shadow, hard at work at an easel. Is this a self-portrait, I wanted to ask, but it looked nothing like Yug Awasthi.

‘You have a whole lifetime of work here,’ I said.

‘I do,’ he said.

‘Did you never think of exhibiting your paintings?’ I asked. ‘People would pay money for some of this stuff.’

Yug Awasthi smiled and shrugged. ‘We tried, a couple of times. We had an exhibition in Dhavaleshwaram once. And then when Ragini insisted, we had one more in Hyderabad. Rented out a huge place for a weekend. The paintings you saw downstairs were framed then. Paid a ridiculous amount of money for the whole thing.’

‘And? What happened?’

‘We sold exactly zero pieces,’ he said, chuckling. ‘And Ragini said maybe there is no market for the stuff. She was right. There is no market.’

‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ I said. ‘You only tried twice, once in Dhavaleshwaram and once in Hyderabad. Maybe there are other avenues – social media?’

‘I tried that too,’ said Yug Awasthi, ‘after Ragini passed away. Didn’t work.’

‘It’s a shame,’ I ventured.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t say it’s a shame,’ said the man, his eyes coming alive once more as he glanced at the unfinished work on his stand. ‘It has allowed me to live life more fully. See it more deeply. And on days I paint – whether or not I paint well – I sleep like a baby.’

‘And on days you don’t?’

Yug Awasthi went to one of Ragini’s pictures on the wall – the one where she was looking up at the sky – and placed his hand on the crook of her neck. ‘Would you like to run this picture of her as an accompaniment to your piece?’

‘Absolutely!’ I said. ‘It would give me a great excuse to talk about your work too.’

‘Oh?’ I detected a faint note of hope in that one syllable. ‘Perhaps I could paint something new for you in that case. When is your story due?’

‘We have a couple of days. And yes, if you do something specially for the story, we’d love to run it.’

* * *

The following evening, as I was putting together my submission to the editor, he sent me an email with the painting he promised. It was a stylistic rendition of the picture I’d seen on the dining room shelf. He had struck the smiles off the faces of the couple, though, and they were turned toward each other, holding hands. Ragini was a young bride, her eyelashes lush and thick and seductive; Yug was his current, aged self. His walking stick was nowhere to be seen, but he appeared haggard, defeated, bent over like a hunchback.

The lump in my throat became heavier the longer I stared at the picture.

Then I called him.

‘Your painting is beautiful,’ I said. ‘And I will of course include it in my submission. Along with the other photographs we have.’

‘Okay,’ said Yug Awasthi.

I should have told him then that we only had room for two pictures in the story, and that it was up to the editor to pick which two he’d like to run with. I should have told him that his painting might not make it.

But I didn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t have the heart.

We held on the call for a few moments, each waiting for the other to say something. And then he said, ‘Well, goodbye.’

* * *

That was four years ago. I never met Yug Awasthi again.

This morning I read in the Dhavaleshwaram Times a notice of his death. And that reminded me of the interview. I vaguely recalled that none of the pictures that had Yug in them had made it to the final story we published. Our editor went with the painting of Ragini that Yug had given us. That and a smaller graphical overlay of all the eighteen editions of Ragini’s books laid on the table. My submission had contained details about Yug’s life interwoven Ragini’s. In the final story, all of these were cut in the interest of space.

That first week after the story was published, I kept meaning to call Yug. To thank him. And to apologize to him. But I kept putting it off.

It didn’t take me long to forget about it. In journalism we have a saying, ‘there is only this story.’ Once you publish something, it was gone. You looked ahead, chased down leads in front of you. You didn’t dare glance back over your shoulder.

The piece in the Times mentioned that he left all his Doghouse assets and their future cash flows to the Dhavaleshwaram Maternity Hospital trust. There were also other odds and ends, I read, that were left under the custodianship of Palem’s library, with instructions to preserve for a year and then to be destroyed if no claimant turned up.

That piqued my interest. What other odds and ends could there be? What else could it mean?

Yug Awasthi had said that Palem Nights was hers, and that Doghouse was theirs. Following the thought to its completion, these odds and ends, then, must be whatever he considered his. Solely his.

I am on my way to Palem now. I don’t know what – if anything – I will find in the library there. Maybe I am over thinking this. But something in my heart – call it a journalist’s intuition – tells me that I may be on to something here.

Maybe the story of Ragini and Yug Awasthi – and of Palem’s interminable nights – is about to take on a new life.

* * *

I meet Devender Reddy on the porch of his bungalow on third cross road. We have just finished our respective cups of masala chai.

‘So you want it all,’ he says again, disbelievingly. ‘All of the books, all of the drawings?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I tell him. ‘I spoke to Venu at the library, and he did suggest that there is no room to keep the stuff.’

Devender Reddy is a heavyset, clean-shaven man who seems to like rubbing himself on the chin. He does so now, and chews the inside of his cheek. ‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘I will be honest with you, Dinesh babu, that it is rather an inconvenience for us when people of the village leave their personal belongings to the library or to the temple. I mean, we welcome it when they give gifts of cash, but when it is – something like this…’

‘I understand.’

‘We had an accountant come in and value the items,’ says Devender Reddy. ‘You are aware, of course, that all paintings of Ragini Madam have been bundled up in Doghouse’s assets.’

‘I gathered as much.’

‘What is left is only Major saab’s journals – and his sketchbooks – and his paintings –’ Devender Reddy makes a gesture with his fingers. ‘Not worth much. Will not bring anything at an auction if you were thinking of that.’

‘I was not, sir.’

‘Perhaps you were thinking some place in Hyderabad would pay good money for this – knowing that this is Ragini Madam’s husband?’

I shake my head.

‘If that is your intention, I must tell you we’ve made enquiries – and there is really no interest. Frankly, if you had not turned up, we were thinking of dumping the whole lot.’

‘My interest in Mr Yug Awasthi’s belongings is purely personal, sir,’ I tell him. I am not lying. At this stage, my interest is purely personal. Of course, if the research goes well, and if a few pieces fall in place, there may be a book deal in it somewhere. And if some more pieces fall in place… but this is none of Devender Reddy’s business.

‘Acha,’ says the headman. ‘You will have to hire your own vehicle to take the stuff away. Is that okay with you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And we will execute a transfer of title from the library’s trust to you,’ says Devender Reddy, still rubbing his chin. ‘Our lawyer thinks that is best, to mitigate anything that may come up in the future.’

‘I think that is best, sir, yes.’

‘Purely a formality,’ says Devender Reddy. ‘We will set the price of the whole thing at a thousand rupees. If you have the cash on you, we will get the paperwork done now and you can haul it away at your convenience.’

‘I do have the cash on me,’ I say, making some mental notes on what I could tell Sushma. One of the upstairs bedrooms, where the baby is sleeping now, can be cleared to make space. Or I can have the cartons put in my study for now, shoved under the bed… the conversation will be an uncomfortable one, but I should be able to wing it.

I consider bringing the price down to eight hundred, but I stop myself. Out of respect for Yug Awasthi.

Two currency notes travel from my wallet to his. We shake hands. After promising to get the stuff out of the library before that weekend, I walk out of the compound and make my way toward the bus stop.

About half-way there, I stop by the general store for a smoke. As I sit on the pyol and light up, it occurs to me that I must not leave Palem without doing one last thing. I am not a sentimental man, but it feels almost sinful now to go back to Dhavaleshwaram without visiting Ellamma Cheruvu. It is, after all, where it all began.

I ask the man behind the counter for directions.