Mercurial Responsibilities

-short story by Kanav Dwevedi, Batch of 2023


My car jolted on the uneven, broken road. It had done so for the past two hours. After having winced and scowled and frowned; having cursed the ground, the government, and my car, all that was left was a kind of incredulous, detached fascination.


As I was beginning to wonder if it would ever get any different—or else if this was all that life had in store—hard, uneven ground gave way to softer dirt and I saw the tops of thatched roofs in the distance. The drive was no longer quite so bumpy, but the loose ground made it unbearably slow. It was almost embarrassing.


I had come here once, when I was a boy. My grandfather had died recently and an offering had to be made to the personal gods of my forefathers. After all the sweat, weariness, and hassle of travel, I remember standing in front of a small booth of brick, while my family went in one by one. In my turn, I remember staring at the eroded once-human features in rock, nestled above a tiny flame. I remember thinking how small these gods seemed. Confined to this tiny enclosure, in a field once my father’s father’s father’s, our gods stood inert and abandoned, noting only the passing of the dead.


I met Aman in front of a tea stand near the outskirts of the village. He wasn’t exactly hard to find, having texted me his location. A strong smell of sweat hit me as he sat beside me in the car. He sighed in relief at the cool air from the AC, and I felt irrationally guilty. I wondered how long he’d been standing.


We drove to my family’s house which was nearer to the centre of the village. It wasn’t a grand residence, a single floor divided into four rooms, exterior walls painted white with a thin layer of dust. Aman pulled out a large iron key, “Your great-grandfather gave this key to my grandfather.” he said, opening the heavy-looking lock on the entrance, ”He did not want to sell it, in case life in the city did not work out. They were very close, so we’ve kept it safe.” I marvelled at the trust and diligence implied; I barely knew where my wife kept the keys to our room and she certainly never trusted me to handle them.


The door opened with the groan of rusted metal. As we stepped inside, I heard a sharp sound from the back, “What was that?” I asked, peering down the hallway. Aman scowled, ”Some kids.” he said and ran into the first door on the right. I followed. Aman pointed out a window through which I saw some children running away, “They break in through the windows sometimes, make a mess of things. They scrawl on the walls, put their things in the cabinet; nothing but trouble!”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, smiling.

“You’re gonna sell it then?” Aman sounded just a bit disapproving.

“Yeah,” I replied, “no one alive in my family has ever lived here. I didn’t even know about this place until Uncle told me last month. We can’t afford to maintain it and it’s too far away to be of any use.”

“Who will you sell it to?”

“We found a local buyer; some wealthy landlord in the next village. I’m going to meet him tomorrow.”

”At least keep this with you, until you sell it off.” He placed the key in my hand. I accepted it with a nod.


Moving past the other rooms, Aman led me through a door at the back of the house. We walked out into a field not ploughed or seeded in nearly a century; it was little more than barren land with some wild growth. Aman led me to the edge of the property, to a small brick enclosure. Inside it were little carvings on a low pedestal, human-like features eroded by time. Its sight struck me again, but differently this time. The carving seemed identical to years past, ‘Timeless.’ I thought. I idly wondered who else had seen the same sight, in some other time.

“I clean it every week.” Aman said. “Many old houses have them, it is said they are as old as the village.”

Not all that old then.’ “Do they have names?” I asked, instead.

“One calls them by the name of their father,” he said, “they are the land, it’s vitality, and all those who seeded it.”

“Will you take them?” Aman asked, suddenly, “Anyone else would either break them down, or forget them.” He looked hopeful, earnest.

“Perhaps,” I said. I was going to stay at Aman’s place for the day, there was no point in offending him. Aman looked happy and relieved and I knew I’d dug myself into a hole.

I sent a picture of the carving to the family chat group; Ancient family gods XD. Want?


Conversation at Aman’s house was stilted. My fault, probably, I was never good at making conversation. As evening came, I decided to go out and take a walk. A large crowd of men had gathered over at the tea stand, there was still daylight left but it seemed that work was over. As I sat alone with a small cup of tea in hand, I saw a group of children, their clothes bright, colourful, and distinctive. They were the ones who had run away after breaking into the old house.

A sudden curiosity came over me and I stood up and walked over. I was never going to come back here anyway, might as well ask. They were four children, three boys and a girl. They were all wary, cautious; ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. I introduced myself to them carefully and after they had calmed down, I decided to get to the point.

“What do you do in that house you were hiding in today?”

“It’s our hideout!” one boy said, “Why do you care what we do?!”

“It was my great-grandfather’s so it’s my ancestral home. Besides that, I’m just curious.”


They looked stunned, as if the time did not compute. To be fair, it didn’t compute for me either. I waited while the kids shuffled and glanced at each other, avoiding looking at me. As they remained stubbornly silent, impatience began to war with curiosity. “Would you miscreants want to go in through the front for once?” I offered,  “In exchange, show me what you do there.” They whispered amongst themselves excited, then agreed. ‘How predictable’.


We reached the house about half an hour before sunset. This time, the groan of the metal door was accompanied by excited shouts as the children ran inside and I followed. They opened the door to a room I hadn’t been in yet. Unlike the rest of the house, this room was relatively clean, broomed and dusted. They’d clearly set it up so each corner belonged to one of them. The images on the wall ranged from recognizable forms—scenery, people, festivals—in one corner, to another full of stick figures and rude words that made me grin. It was nice, I decided.

“Will you live here now?” I blinked, then looked at the girl who had asked the question. It seemed my smile had made them more confident.

“No,” I replied, “I’m just here for today.”

“Can we have the key then? No one else comes here!” One of the boys winced. Were children usually this bold?

“I can’t. I’ve already promised it to someone else. It won’t be fair if I just give it away.” Kids understood fairness right?

Her face fell and tears pooled in her eyes. “No!” she cried, “This was our hideout first!


What was sensible mattered very little, when children cried, not to mention parents angry at a stranger for upsetting their daughter. I felt even more uncomfortable when one of the boys came up and held her hand, and decided damage control was in order before the waterworks really got going.

Look,” I began, “I know you love this place; I can see it. But things like houses—they can’t just be taken by whoever comes first. If you really want it that badly, you should buy it when you grow up.”

Sincerity—instead of anger—seemed to have caught them off guard. It often did with children. She scowled and then ran away, dragging along the boy holding her hand. The other two looked unsure so I just waved them off and sighed. This walk had been even more tiresome than stilted conversations.


I pulled out my phone and looked at the texts;


[It looks weird!]



Seems like my children didn’t care for it.


[Where would we keep it?]


At least my wife had attempted tact.


Now, to confront Aman and risk avoidable conflict, or to chuck the rock into some random stretch of forest and make everyone happy?


There had been a ceremony the next morning. A small affair to ready the idol for transport. Aman had put the rock onto the backseat of my car with respect and diligence, his sincerity making me wince and laugh nervously. Maybe someone else would want it? Surely there was someone. I decided I’d look around a few markets and maybe try online. It would be better than abandoning it, at least.

As I was ready to leave, I felt the large key in my pocket, pressing uncomfortably against my skin. I kept remembering the crying girl, wondering which corner had been hers and how long it’d taken to make it. This was not guilt I decided, as I drove along another broken road to meet the buyer. Not guilt, but… uneasiness. It was merely right to feel strange selling something you never owned.