From an anthology of short stories / Published by: Impish Lass Publishing House (Mumbai)
On my way home from school in the afternoon, as the paddy fields came into view, my classmates would part ways, leaving me alone before the green meadow. To the left was a plateau that could hardly be called a hillock, but high ground, perhaps. On either side of the ground stretched long rows of sesame hulls, leftovers of the previous crop. At the end of the rainy season every year, people grow one crop or the other. They leased the land for cultivation from the Jama’at committee to which it belonged.
On the slope on the other side stood a sea-green rectangular building with a slanting roof that served as the primary religious education center, also known as the ‘madrasa’. Over the years, the old-fashioned tiles at its top had gathered moss over them, eventually turning into the color of oak tree trunks. I did not know that moss was a symbol of resilience, time, and history until I came across a passing reference about it in my Social Studies textbook.
Every morning before school, the children would come to the ‘madrasa’ and read tongue-twisting verses from the scriptures. While the children recited the verses with a chant-like intonation, ‘Ustad’, the teacher, would walk around, watching them, turning the soft, round face of the cane in his hand over its entire length. ‘Ustad’ would grant each student a time frame to revise his lesson. At the end of the deadline, he expected the students to produce faultless results. He would often show no mercy to the defaulters and wouldn’t even consider giving them a second chance, and the cane would swing down with an ‘uff’ sound as it whipped the air before it landed on its target. His wife, Pathumma thatha, had already given birth to eight children and was waiting for the ninth. There was a rumor among the children that Pathumma thatha simply needed to cross paths with her husband after nightfall, and the outcome would be known in nine months.
When Uncle Hameed returned home from the Far East, the brown wooden cabinet we had at home was converted into a bookcase. Besides a black metal trunk full of books, he brought along an Olympia portable typewriter, a Telefunken record changer, and an enormous collection of 33, 45 and 78-RPM vinyl records. He was also a lover of Urdu poetry. He often recited poems by Faiz and Iqbal. I listened to his baritone, understanding none of it. Once he explained to me the meaning of one of Iqbal’s verses, which soon became my favorite: “Nahin tera nasheman Qasr-e-Sultan ke gumbat par, Tu Shaheen hai, Basera kar pahadon ki chattano par.” (Thy intention should not be to make a nest in the dome of the royal palace, Oh Eagle. Thy rank is much higher, and thou shouldst live on the mountain tops.)
Uncle Hameed was in his late 40s but remained celibate. His straight combed hair, pristine white collared shirt, beaver-brown patent leather half-shoes, and nonchalant smile were absolutely out of this world. There was something special about the way he smiled. I had seen no one smile with his eyes before.
On the far right of the second shelf of the cabinet was a book titled ‘Rebel without a Cause.’ I once asked him if it was a good book, and he said, “Of course, it is, but a script,” he didn’t tell me what the difference was, though. But he explained to me that a “rebel” was someone who disobeys authority, that attempted to impose control over others. I immediately replied, “Do you think I am a rebel?” He laughed hilariously and said, “Of course I do.” His laughter echoed from the high ceiling of the room. That was enough for me.
That weekend, we had a full session at the madrasa. The following Saturday, I bought a pack of Panama cigarettes and a box of crackers at Alappadan’s grocery store in town. I also took some thread and a sewing needle from my mother’s safe deposit box, a taffy container with sewing supplies. I stuck the needle into the cigarettes and held each one securely in place, one vertical strand at a time. In the meantime, I also applied some glue to keep them from shifting. Once I hooked up the bunch of crackers at the far end, the device was ready to detonate.
In the morning, I successfully smuggled the device into the ‘madrasa’. When all the students took their lunch break, I hung around. ‘Ustad’ would also go out for lunch and come back for his afternoon nap. I attached the gadget to the windowsill before Ustad returned, close to where the cushions were stacked high over two firmly set benches. After making sure no one was looking, I lighted the cigarette at the open end and quietly walked away. It would take at least an hour before the cigarettes burned out and the crackers were lit.
By the time I showed up for the afternoon session at the ‘madrasa’, Ustad looked like a different person than before. I held my breath, thinking that a flogging awaited all twenty-nine of us. Surprisingly, nothing happened and business was as usual.
Our house was halfway up the hill, at the first turn from the ‘Puli-para’ (so called because once leopards used to live among the rocks in the expanse) intersection, and immediately after the goldsmiths’ dry palm-leaf-roofed mud huts and Ravi the Lame’s rice mill. The rice mill, however, was only a front. Behind the rectangular yellow panel with his name painted across in thick black letters, Ravi ran a thriving bootlegging operation.
West of his property lay the canal. To the south, there was a stretch of paddy fields. East of the paddy fields stood Potti’s deserted bungalow. Astrologer Lakshmanan Asan had advised Potti not to live in the bungalow for twenty years because it was under the influence of evil forces, and Potti readily obliged. Behind it was a mound known as the ‘Maadan kavu’ (devil’s abode), a dense grove of palmyra palms, peepals, medlars, and portias, where Ravi’s brewery operated in camouflage. This earned him the nickname ‘parvenu’. My classmate Ajmal said that he saw Peelikkottu Sharada ‘chechi’ (elder sister) and the maidservant of Chencheril house leaving the mill premises one afternoon, red-faced and teary-eyed.
But one night, as a dry easterly wind blowing through the Aryankavu pass tickled the G-spots on Palmyra leaves and the jingling of shackles disturbed Madan’s sleep, a gang of excise officers raided Ravi’s illegal brewery. The officers shattered everything in sight, confiscated a two-ton truckload of arrack in ten-liter cans, and detained Ravi and his associates. To add to Ravi’s woes, that night a fire broke out in his rice mill, and the entire building was gutted.
Rumors circulated that Ajmal’s father, Kasim Rowther, was the snitch. However, the cause of the fire was attributed to Madan’s shallow sleep. Until then, all I had heard was that Madan went for a stroll in the afternoon to the west, clanking his shackles, and drank the blood of cows grazing in the empty paddy fields after the crops, without even making an incision. Apparently, the devil’s bite was much worse than his bark.
I did not know how a coarse and unsavory person like Ravi garnered so much support in our neighborhood. But it was easy to figure out how the status quo had grown over time. Sometimes, the hardest part is knowing which bridge to cross and which one to burn.
Behind the ‘madrasa’ was a temporary hut made of woven bamboo strips and coconut leaves that withstood the north winds and torrential rains where the ‘boogeyman’ lived. Everyone knew that Majeed kakka was Ustad’s younger brother. How he came to be mad-Majeed is beyond me.
Majeed kakka was tall yet scrawny, with a thick crop of salt and pepper hair that he cut himself as short as possible, using either a razor blade or a quarter-inch wide, folding pen knife with a ceramic handle. Because of his slightly angular shape, most people in the village mistakenly thought he was a hunchback. Even those who knew that he was not a lunatic later assumed he was. Majeed kakka always wore a sheer cotton towel that covered his body from the waistline to just below the knees, revealing his striped underwear. He bathed several times a day in the nearby canal, in the cotton towel he always wore. It was probably the only clothing he had and hung it out to dry at night when no one was around. He hardly spoke to anyone and seldom left the vicinity of the ‘madrasa’. But whenever he did, he carried a backpack made of jute. The children claimed that he drugged little kids, packed them in his rucksack, and sold them as beggars to Gypsies in far-off locations.
He always cooked for himself. His kitchen utensils comprised three pieces of rocks of uniform height, a round aluminum container with a narrow neck, and a wooden spoon. He prepared everything, from steaming tea leaves to cooking rice in these utensils. He cooked meat only once or twice a year, a luxury he owed to my father.
On the day of Eid, our neighbor Kassim Rowther sacrificed a lamb in his backyard. Rowther would explain to the neighborhood children who had gathered in the backyard to see the sacrifice that God only cared about the sanctity of their intentions and not the body parts of the sacrificed animal. After the short discourse was over, Kunjannan, the barber, now approached the lamb while reciting a prayer. Ajmal, the youngest of the Rowthers, with wavy brown hair and steel-grey eyes, would feed the goat a few jack fruit tree leaves and water, its last breakfast. Kunjannan would then grab the lamb by its jaw and plunge the sharp blade of a large kitchen knife into its carotid artery. Blood gushing from the decapitated lamb was not a pleasant sight, but we all stood there and watched. Did killing a living thing suit God, especially because its flesh and blood never reached Him?
Traditionally, meat is divided into three parts: one for the poor, one for friends and relatives, and the last one for the family. Later, when our portion arrived neatly wrapped in banana leaves, I asked my father for permission to deliver it to Majeed kakka. He granted my wish with the laughing remark, “Let Majeed too celebrate Eid.” He would also press a one-hundred-rupee bill into my palm and whisper, “Go get some for us from Plamoodan’s slaughter house.”
Whenever I gave Majeed kakka the offering, the veiled shadow of anger disappeared from his sharp eyes. Did he feel indebted to me, my father, Rowther, or the sacrificial lamb? This life isn’t for everyone, because for some it is harder than it is for others.
Occasionally, mischievous children would tease Majeedkakka by throwing pebbles at him. Most of the time he did not respond. When they felt that he had looked up angrily at them, baring his sharp front teeth, they would call out ‘mad-Majeed’ and run as fast as they could.
Every morning, ‘Ustad’ gave Majeed kakka a one-rupee coin, making it his daily allowance. Supposedly, he had attended a ‘family planning’ camp in a neighboring state and undergone vasectomy. In return, he received three hundred and fifty rupees and a plastic bucket, all of which he handed over to his brother. Was the new orange bucket found near the well where ‘Ustad’ and his disciples performed ‘ablution’, part of the bargain for Majeed kakka’s manhood? People gossiped that ‘Ustad’ did no one any favor.
More often than not, when I opened the tiffin box our maidservant, Nachiamma had packed for me, I felt sick at the memory of her short fingers and dirty square fingernails. But I never complained to my mother. Nachiamma was quite old. She walked with a slight tilt to her left, and her eyesight had deteriorated. She formed part of the dowry my mother had brought along after marriage. No one would take her to work in the present condition. Fortunately, I found a culvert in front of the paddy field with a couple of broken rocks on the parapet. If I emptied the tiffin before coming home from school, the culvert would eat it all up.
Children in the village thought Majeed kakka was an ogre. Some women used Majeed kakk’s fictional reputation to intimidate children who did not eat or go to bed on time. Even so, I could not suppress my curiosity. As I wandered around the ‘madrasa’, he didn’t pay the slightest attention to me. One day I caught him outside, brushing his teeth with a neem stalk after a nap. I appeared to have caught him off-guard because children never approached him in such proximity. When he laughed, his eyes narrowed, and I saw yellow teeth. “Aren’t you afraid?”, I could read the question between his raised eyebrows. My response was a cautious smile, and he smiled back, showing more yellow teeth.
I stopped to empty Nachiamma’s lunch under the culvert. Now accustomed to his routine, I arrived early the next day while he was napping. I left Nachiamma’s lunch packet next to the stove with the rock splinters. This strategy worked for two more days, and on the fourth day when the sleeping Majeed kakka’s hand reached for my arm, I almost screamed and felt the blood recede from my face. He had caught me red-handed, yet that broke the ice.
As I became a regular visitor to his lodge, Majeed kakka felt that Nachaimma’s lunch was more sumptuous than anything he had ever eaten. After he’d washed up, he would light a ‘beedi’, and begin one of our story-telling sessions.
Majeed kakka proved to be a versatile storyteller. Among them were stories of Cleopatra emerging from the carpet before an invading Roman general, and tales of local heroes and heroines. His telltale chronicles would transport me through unheard-of vistas across the vast Persian dunes. One day, he told me about his ‘Hajj’ (pilgrimage) journey at the insistence of his elder sister.
Zuleihatha was fifteen years older than he was. She mortgaged her house and land to a local moneylender, Kuttan Pilla, to pay for her pilgrimage. This would leave her homeless without the cabin with a kitchenette in which she lived. In front of her grumpy neighbors, she made excuses, saying: ‘Thawakkal Allah’ (I submit myself to God’s plan).
Majeed kakka still does not know why, of all people, he was asked to accompany her. Nor did he know how much his sister loved her younger brother. Zuleihatha and her husband tried to knock on every door one could think of, but they could never have children. Her husband passed away ten years ago.
Now she was frail and sickly. Undertaking the ‘Hajj’ trip in the middle of the Arabian summer was demanding. In the sweltering desert heat, she became dehydrated and developed cold-like symptoms like a sore throat, stuffy nose, and coughing. Two days later, she experienced a high temperature, chills, a cough that generated thick yellow mucus, and chest pains, prompting her to be taken to the hospital. Because of an infection, she was diagnosed with lung air space irritation. Strong drugs were used to treat her for a week, but she showed no signs of recovery. Then, on the eleventh day, she laid her head on her brother’s chest and let out her last breath.
During the burial, an anomaly occurred. In some parts of the Arab world, it was customary to bury a dead infant with the body of an older person instead of burying it separately. When Zuleihatha’s body was being lowered into the grave, one family brought the body of an infant and buried them together. Perhaps it was God’s way of granting Zuleihatha what she had asked for.
Majeed kakka sat by Zuleihatha’s grave for some time after the members of the ‘Hajj’ group left. Suddenly, grey broccoli clouds appeared in the sky, followed by thunder, lightning, and torrential rain. As one resolute light bolt hit Zuleihatha’s grave, an electrical discharge erupted from the ground. Several cracks appeared over the damp pile of sand that covered the crypt. After a while, the rain thinned into a drizzle. A stiff wind was blowing. The cold was biting, but calm reigned. Then two golden flames, one slightly smaller than the other, burst out of the cracks and rushed upward with great speed. A chill ran down his spine, but he followed the flames so closely that his eyes ached. The next day, as he walked to the Masjid for morning prayer, he looked up. There were two stars in the eastern sky, probably a mother and daughter.
After his voice trailed off, I returned from the castles of sand to the ramshackle living quarter of my storyteller. He must have wondered what had come between him and the man he wanted to be.
When I got home that evening, I was hot all over. Seeing my eyelids drooping, my mother felt my forehead and looked at my throat. She asked Nachiamma to make chicken soup and told my father to take me to a nearby local doctor.
Gopalan kaniyan diagnosed me with chickenpox. For the next three weeks, I slept on a bed in the smallest room between the master bedroom and the dining room. The only window in that room faced the walkway leading to the front door. Through the three-inch rectangular slit under the gate, I could see human feet, cat paws, and bicycle tires crossing the path. The vesicles on my chest and limbs burst as I scratched them with my fingernails, making the healing slower. No one but my mother came near me for fear of catching the contagious disease.
I lay in bed, looking up at the wooden ceiling through the thin grey veil of incense smoke, and thought of Majeed kakka. He was a lonely man living all by himself in the wilderness of the highlands. What would he eat if it were not for Nachiamma’s tiffin? Lately, Majeed kakka waited for me outside his quarters. Did he wait for the food I brought in the tiffin box, or did he secretly cherish the time we haven’t spent together in a long time? Was he hoping to reap what he didn’t sow?
Leaning with my back against the trunk of a jackfruit tree, I watched a blue kingfisher trying to fish in the laterite mine pond further up the plateau. The bird stayed above the water flapping its wings in quick succession until it found its prey. As soon as it found its victim, the bird dove into the water, caught the fish in its beaks and flew off. Soon after, someone approached the pond. It was Majeed kakka. He, too, was about to take a dip. He entered the pond and plunged into the water. I didn’t count, but it must have been more than a minute. What was Majeed kakka trying to do? He would drown. No ripples appeared on the surface of the water. My heart beat faster, and I wanted to rush to the pond. But my limbs wouldn’t move. A shrill escaped my mouth, and I woke up bathed in sweat.
On the morning of the first school day after my illness, I noticed ‘Ustad’ standing with two other men in front of the hut where Majeed kakka lived. I was going to be late for school, so I ran away, not paying much attention to what the men were doing outside Majeed kakka’s camp.
On my way back that evening, I wondered what story Majeed kakka had in store for me. The orange bucket lay on its side by the well and hissed as the wind hit its cracked bottom. When I approached Majeed kakka’s hut, it seemed deserted. I pulled on the cluster of coconut leaves and bamboo sticks, and the door of the hut flung open. There was no trace of Majeed kakka. Except for the empty coir cot and the plain clothesline, everything inside looked tidy, as if Majeed kakka had never lived there. I wondered where he had gone.
When I heard footsteps approaching, I turned back to find ‘Ustad’ standing there like a lost child. He was not the cold, impassive, and manipulative man everyone thought he was. I was looking for one thing and found another. The words tumbled out of his mouth as if he had learned them by rote, “He was unaware that he had contracted chickenpox and you know how obsessed he is with cleanliness. He bathed in the morning, afternoon and evening, as usual, and it got worse. Gopalan kaniyan’s tincture did not help, and he died last night. There was no one for whom we should have waited, and we buried him right before the noon service.”
The sky was seamless, but the orange color of the twilight was eating up its blue. No one could tell with ‘Ustad’, but something sober was melting in his eyes from behind the impassive muscles lining his face. I didn’t know what to say to him.
I ran across the paddy field toward the house. I didn’t go to the kitchen for the banana fry and malt beverage Nachiamma was supposed to make for me. But no one noticed. I dumped my books over the small study table and tried to sit alone for a while. I heard Nachiamma telling my mother that Bhagavathi (Goddess) had dispersed the seeds, and Majeed got caught in the shower. Only She knew whose turn will be next.
I felt fidgety. I walked towards the backyard and sat on the wooden plank of the swing that hung from the branch of the tamarind tree. Some people, like flowers, sprouted in your life without you realizing it. Did benevolence always end up in grief? Was happiness a sin? For the first time, I experienced the pain of losing what I cherished. Not that I always got what I wanted. But until now, I have never been in a situation where I lost something that I endeared so much. It happened so unexpectedly that I felt the ground beneath my feet crunch. I wished the world would stop in its tracks for a second, but it didn’t.
For how long I sat there looking at the distant skyline through the tamarind leaves, I did not know. A cool breeze rustled my unruly hair and gently caressed my cheeks. Sometimes one tires of being strong too. The sun had disappeared beyond the skyline. The gold in the sky had made way for pink and purple. From above the branches of the tamarind tree, the night was steadily descending like a bear on its hind legs. A pale, but splintered quarter moon showed up in the eastern sky. Was a tear or two threatening to roll down from my eyes? Was that the reason the moon now appeared in broken pieces? I felt drained and on the edge.
A rooster crowed from its shelter in Kassim Rawther’s house. I heard Nachiamma calling out my name. I did not move. Then I heard footsteps approaching and looked up. It was uncle Hameed. He came around, sat beside me on the swing’s plank, and held me close. Moments passed with neither of us talking, yet I could hear his unsaid whisper in my ears: ‘Tu Shaheen hai..’ (Thou art the eagle). The embankment of sand caved in. I laid my head on his chest and sobbed.