Cockfight

My brother sucked on his teeth and bit his lip in an attempt to mask the pain as I rubbed sesame oil into his shoulders. His shoulders were lean but woven together with sinewy muscles toned by hours of labor, and his skin had darkened to match the color of the fertile loam that he tilled. His shoulders were usually hidden beneath hand-medowns from our father, a barrel-chested man who wore shirts that were large and unflattering on my pubescent brother. Now, however, my brother’s shoulders were exposed and covered with fire ant bites. “I warned you Seenu, I warned you. Did I not?” “Yes Papa, you did.” My brother answered without missing a beat. No questions were rhetorical in our household. My brother, unwilling and unable to match Papa’s ice-cold glare, watched Papa’s bare feet pace across the dining room floor. I dipped my fingers into the cup of oil and hoped that I would evanesce if I just focused all of my attention on my brother’s shoulders. My brother winced and his muscles rippled outwards from the impact of my hands on his body. “Beti, don’t forget to tend to the bruises on his wrists and ankles, too.” Despite my wishes, I hadn’t disappeared. “Yes Papa.” I matched my brother’s submissive tone. I had learned from his mistakes how to speak to Papa when he was angry. I lubricated my hands again and began massaging the rope burns on my brother’s wrists. “Seenu, gambling is evil. You know that. Look at what it did to Mister Rajendra – he is corrupted and his whole family suffers for his sake. Look at how thin his boy is! And Lord knows he would gamble his wife away too, just like Draupadi for a roll of the dice.” “Papa, I won though. We will eat tummy-full all week.” My brother’s head remained craned downwards – he offered obedience with his demeanor and voice, but not with his words. I dug into his tender wrists with my thumbs in an attempt to rein him in and prevent him from talking back to Papa. “Win or lose is irrelevant, gambling is gambling. When you gamble, you gain and spend too quickly. It’s unnatural, unethical. In life, change must be gradual and intentional. Life is too short already; there is no time for heavy windfalls and sudden losses.” My brother stiffened at the spine one vertebra at a time and twisted his arms, breaking free from my grip. I did not resist him, fearing that I might aggravate his wounds. He cocked his head upwards and met my father’s gaze, shedding his façade of complacency. “Was losing Mom gradual? expected? deliberate?” “Shut up before I throw you back on that anthill!” My brother jumped to his feet and marched to our room. His oily figure became a mirage under the harsh summer light. *** My brother only ever bet on cock fights. I always thought that his proclivity for cock fighting was a gradual, natural progression in the course of his life line. Papa would bring him to watch the cock fights during the Sankranti festival each year ever since I was still in the womb and my brother was too young to retain memories. As the cocks charged at each other with the calculation of drunkards, Papa would whisper commentary into my brother’s ear. “See how that cock frills its neck feathers? That one is truly aggressive, ready to fight. That other one is docile, effeminate, oh it stands no chance...” “Oof, that waste fellow did not even sharpen his razors. See how sharp the razor is on the white cock’s feet? That one will surely win...” “Ah, this match might actually be close. This cock has long legs but that cock can stay airborne longer with its powerful wings. See, Seenu, both legs and wings are important in cockfighting...” Papa always postulated which cock would win and Papa was always correct, but Papa never bet a single paisa. *** My brother and I woke to a rooster’s crow a couple weeks after his ant bites healed. Despite the oversaturated imagery in books and movies, a rooster crow was an atypical way for us to wake up – we kept no cocks on our modest sesame farm. The sun was still hiding behind the verdant hills and we deserved another hour of sleep at the very least. But the cock screeched again, louder, so cacophonously that it sounded like it was inside the house. I pulled the covers from my face and rolled off my pillow, leaving a damp spot where my mouth was. Yet another squawk rang out. No, the ruckus really was coming from within the house. The two of us rushed into the dining room to find a cock seemingly too miniscule to produce such large sounds perched on top of the largest of the three chairs – Papa’s chair. Papa was the only one allowed to sit in that chair, that chair with a cushion, that chair at the head of the table. Papa stood by the entrance to the kitchen, beaming, even though there was an intruder in his chair. “Seenu, I’ve been tough with you,” my father began in the voice that he reserved for life lessons, “but that is because I love you.” My brother played at his silken beginnings of a moustache without reciprocating sentiments. His feelings had not yet healed. “And I will not have my only son succumb to a base addiction like gambling. You must earn everything in this lifetime and the next. Luck is a demon after all, and you should never expect anything of her.” He took a step towards the cock, halving the distance between him and the bird. The cock responded to the stimulus of Papa’s movement the only way it knew how: with a roaring crow. Papa shifted his attention back to my brother; the cock, unthreatened, quieted and remained perched on Papa’s chair. “You can raise this cock and stake both your pride and reputation on its successes. Gamble away anything more and you’ll find yourself back on that anthill.” Papa left the house and headed towards the sesame fields, and my brother transformed from stolid to bubbling with excitement. “Oh, Avanti!” He took my hand and twirled me like a ballerina. “Name this cock for me, for he will be the greatest warrior in all of India!” He ran to the backyard and uprooted the sticks that he and his friends used as wickets and laid all the stones he could find in a wide circle. I watched him effervesce from the kitchen window for a moment, and then I returned to the cock in the dining room. “I’ll call you Krauncha, after Lord Ganesha’s mouse. You are small, but my brother will make you big. Oh, you’ll lift elephants.” My brother rationed off a portion of each of his meals for Krauncha and pitted practice fights against the neighbor’s cocks in his makeshift arena. After a month, the monsoons pierced the blistering summer heat and my brother deemed Krauncha fit for battle. On a Saturday, he brought Krauncha to the town’s weekly cockfighting match. I didn’t go – I had to prepare dinner for Papa and my brother. I was relieved to have a convenient excuse; Krauncha was a pet, not a warrior. I always called Krauncha by his name. That afternoon my brother presented me with a dead cock – a good sign for Krauncha because the winner took home the defeated carcass. The rooster was velvet to the touch, except for the gashes across its underbelly. The cock was bigger than Krauncha but apparently lacked the will to fight. And Krauncha? He was perched on top of Papa’s chair, as usual. I plucked the fallen soldier clean of its amber feathers, drained its blood, and dropped it, whole, into a pot of boiling water. Papa and my brother inhaled the rooster without adding any salt or spices. They claimed it tasted more like genuine victory that way. I didn’t try a bite; the cock must have had a name to someone, to a girl like me. My brother brought home a dead cock the next two weekends. The third weekend, he returned with only a shrug. “Well, that old cock had a good run.” He bought a bigger cock that Sunday. Most weeks, he came home with a single dead cock. Some weeks he would have two dead cocks: the cock he killed and his own cock, victorious but injured and otherwise useless to him. Those weeks Papa and my brother would each eat an entire rooster, and Papa always ate the bigger one. On rare weeks, my brother would return empty handed and he and Papa would settle for a vegetable curry. *** “I’m proud of that Seenu.” Papa and I were alone in the house. His profession had added undue years to his age, and he could no longer rival the vigorous sun for an entire day. My brother compensated for Papa’s wizened body by toiling hours after the sun had set. I relished the moments I had alone with Papa. Sometimes he talked to me like an adult. Sometimes he talked to himself. And sometimes I could not tell which one of us he was talking to. “All this cockfighting business has given him discipline, and a sense of what it means to earn. It’s really turned him into a man.” “Yes Papa. And seeing him work the fields at night reminds me of the stories Mom would tell about you in your youth.” “Ah, you’re right beti. He could take care of the whole farm some day.” Papa was not talking to himself today. “But he also carries so much of his mother in those deep-set eyes and loose curls... so many fragments of her. He bears that impatience of hers. See beti, the cruelest thing about love is that you fall in love with people’s imperfections. You fall in love with their crooked nose thinking it makes them special. I fell in love with your mother’s dreams for more, her dreams for something else. But she’s long gone now and that love has faded; now I can see her imperfections for what they were. She was impatient, unrealistic.” “Papa, if you’re proud of my brother you should tell him. He admires you, even when he challenges you. It’s something that he’s been needing to hear.” “I will, when the time is right. But first, I must wait and watch him grow into his manhood.” “Papa, are discipline and earning important for womanhood, too?” Papa did not have an answer for me. He began talking to himself again. *** I stopped naming the cocks after several months; it made cleaning the carcasses of my pets easier. But I still prayed for them every Saturday. That year, for Sankranti, my brother bought a cock with rainbow plumage. Its hues danced from crimson to violet as it puffed its prideful chest. The cock survived Sankranti and the rest of January. I had to name him. I called him Bhima, after the gargantuan hero from the Mahabharata that slayed every last evil Kaurava brother – all one hundred of them. Papa said that Bhima was dropped on a boulder when he was a baby and the boulder shattered. My Bhima, too, would be unbreakable. I prayed for him every day, not just Saturdays. *** Week after week my brother would return with Bhima unscathed and the cadaver of a larger cock than the week before. And each week, my brother would stake more of his pride and reputation on Bhima, always returning victorious. I bought a larger pot to keep up with my brother and Bhima. Soon, however, my brother started coming home with more than a doubled pride and reputation. He greeted me in the kitchen wearing a shirt that fit his growing proportions and bell-bottom pants like the ones college kids wore. “I’m not one to ask you the hard questions, brother. I just ask that you be careful. Don’t let Papa catch you in those clothes. God knows we can’t afford any of those.” “I earned this. This isn’t gambling. I’m only betting on my own cock.” My brother strutted about the kitchen like a peacock. “Look Avanti, I even got these for you.” He coaxed a packet wrapped with newspaper from his tight pockets and handed it to me as if he was giving me a dead cock. Inside, I found twelve copper bangles, a complete set, each one studded with false gems. “Brother, no. Take these back. I don’t want to hurt you.” My brother smiled from the corners of his mouth and gingerly took my left hand with his right. He slipped the bangles over my fingers. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I repeated. The bangles were too small and caught on the base of my thumb. My brother applied pressure and a twist, and the bangles slid onto my wrist. The bangles hurt. *** Last week, my brother came home with the largest cock I have ever seen. I doubt that it would have fit in my new pot. “Papa! Look at this cock Bhima slayed! He really will kill one hundred!” Papa emerged from his bedroom with a scowl and two ropes – one for my brother’s hands and one for his feet. “I told you not to gamble! I told you not to gamble!” “Papa, what?” My brother, dressed in his hand-medowns, played innocent. “I did not raise a gambler and a liar! Mister Rajendra came to me, begging for money just an hour ago. He says he lost fifty rupees to you, betting against Bhima.” The invincible Bhima cowered under my brother to attenuate Papa’s berating. My brother looked at the ropes, at me, at the ropes again, and then he sprinted out the door with Bhima under his arm. *** Today is Saturday. I have not seen my brother all week and I skipped cooking Papa’s dinner to come to the weekly cockfight. Neither my brother nor Bhima are here, and I fear that they will not show next week, either. *** My father is not a gambling man, but he certainly is a betting man. This time he’s lost his son. I wonder if he considers this loss gradual, expected, deliberate.

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