One Road and Many Shadows

When I’d hand over the offering to Omar kakka, I always noticed that the veiled shadow of anger would disappear from those piercing eyes. Was he feeling obliged, to me, or to my father, or to Rawther or to the sacrificed goat? This life isn’t for everyone, because it is harder on some than it is on others…      Read More...

From an anthology of short stories / Published by: Impish Lass Publishing House (Mumbai)  

On our return journey from school in the afternoons, by the time the paddy field came into view, my class mates would part ways heading straight, leaving me alone before the green meadow. On the left stood a plateau which one cannot exactly call a hill, but high ground at most. On either side of the ground stretched long rows of sesame hulls, left overs of the actual crop. Once the rainy season has ended, there grows some crop or the other every year. Someone will lease the land for cultivation from the Jama’at committee each year.

At the slope on the other side stood a small building with a dome on its top which served as the primary religious education centre, otherwise known as the ‘othupalli’. Early each morning, before school, children would come to the ‘othupalli’ to read tongue twisting verses from the Holy Book. While the children recited the verses in a chant-like intonation, their teacher, ‘mollakka’, would walk around observing his students closely, as he turned in his hand the soft round surface of the cane over its entire length. ‘Mollakka’ would allow each student a time-frame to learn each lesson. At the end of the cut-off period, each student was expected to recite the lesson he or she had learnt. Oftentimes ‘mollakka’ did not spare the defaulters, nor did he consider giving them a second chance, and the cane would swing into action making an ‘uff’-sound as it whipped the air before it landed on its target. Mollakka’s wife, Pathumma thatha  had already borne eight children and awaited the arrival of the ninth. There were hushed whispers doing the rounds among the children in the ‘othupalli’ that Pathumma thatha only had to be sleeping anywhere in the house where Mollakka’s path crossed and the outcome would be evident in nine months.

Behind the ‘othupalli’ lived the ‘boogeyman’ in a make-shift shed outfitted with bamboo poles and braided coconut leaves that stood firm challenging the howling north wind and the heavy downpours. As a matter of fact, Omar kakka was mollakka’s younger brother. The reason why he was referred to as mad-Omar remained beyond my comprehension. Omar kakka was a tall lanky man with a thick crop of salt and pepper hair that he cut himself to the shortest possible length either using a razor blade or a quarter inch narrow, multi-purpose foldable pen knife with a ceramic handle. The slightly angular shape of his frame gave most people in our village the wrong impression that he was a hunch-back.

Even those who knew that he was actually not, later convinced themselves he was one. Omar kakka was always dressed in a thin cotton towel that covered his body from his waistline to slightly below his knees, which also revealed his striped under-garment. He bathed several times a day in the near-by canal wearing the towel he always wore; perhaps that was the only piece of clothing he owned; perhaps he hung it out to dry at night when no one was around. He hardly spoke to anyone and seldom moved out of the area surrounding the ‘othupalli’. But whenever he did, he carried with him a back-pack made of jute. Children spoke among themselves in muted tones that he would drug little children, dump them in his back-pack and sell them to gipsies in far-off places who forced them into begging. Generally, he cooked for himself. His kitchen utensils consisted of three rock splinters of even height, a round aluminium vessel with a narrow neck and a wooden spoon. He prepared everything, from steaming tea leaves to boiling rice, using this paraphernalia. He cooked meat only once or twice a year, a luxury he owed to my father.

As a memorial service to Prophet Ibrahim’s commitment to God by almost sacrificing his son Ismael, every year on Eid-al-Adha, our neighbour Kassim Rawther sacrificed a lamb in his backyard. Eid fell on the 10th day of the month of Dul-Hijjah per the Arabic calendar. From day one of the month until the Eid prayers were over on the 10th day, Rawther would neither manicure his nails nor shave or trim his hair, which formed part of the rituals relating to his intention to sacrifice the animal. After all the children in the neighbourhood had assembled in his backyard to witness the sacrifice, Rawther would tell us that it was only the sanctity of his intention that mattered to God, and not the flesh or blood of the slaughtered animal. Once his brief lecture concluded, ‘mollakka’ would take over by chanting prayers while he approached the sacrificial animal. Rawther’s youngest son, Ajmal, by far the fairest among us all, with wavy brown hair and steel grey eyes, would feed the goat a few jack fruit tree leaves and water, its last breakfast. ‘Mollakka’ would then grab the lamb by its jaw and thrust the sharp blade of the large kitchen knife into its jugular. What fragments of thoughts could have flashed through the animal’s mind, if at all it had one? Would it be able to relate to the fact that its own sacrifice is the noblest way of reaching out for an altruistic purpose? Admittedly, the gush of blood from the lamb’s severed neck was not a delightful spectacle to witness, yet on the morning of every sacrificial Eid, I went to Rawther’s back yard with the other children.

Traditionally, the meat was divided into three portions: one for the poor, one for friends and relatives and the last portion for the family. Later, when our share arrived neatly wrapped in a banana leaf, I requested my father permission to deliver it to Omar kakka. He granted my wish without hesitation with the laughing remark, “Let Omar 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 slaughterhouse.”

When I’d hand over the offering to Omar kakka, I always noticed that the veiled shadow of anger would disappear from those piercing eyes. Was he feeling obliged, to me, or to my father, or to Rawther or to the sacrificed goat? This life isn’t for everyone, because it is harder on some than it is on others.

At times, some mischievous children would dare Omar kakka by pelting pebbles at him. On most occasions, he did not respond. Whenever the children imagined that he had looked up angrily at them baring his sharp front teeth, they would call out ‘mad-Omar’ and run as fast as they could.

Every morning ‘mollakka’ would give Omar kakka a one rupee coin to cover his daily expenses. It was rumoured that Omar kakka had attended some ‘family planning’ camp in the adjoining state and undergone sterilization. In exchange, he had become richer by three hundred and fifty rupees and a plastic bucket, both of which he handed over to his elder brother. Was the new orange bucket found near the well where ‘mollakka’ and his students performed ‘ablution’ (cleansing process before prayer) been part of the bargain for Omar kakka’s manhood? People gossiped that ‘mollakka’ never did any favour to anyone, not even to his siblings. On most days when I opened the tiffin box that Nachiamma, the maidservant in our house, had packed for me, I felt like puking, as I recalled her short thick fingers and square nails under which were accumulated globs of dirt. But I never complained to my mother. Nachiamma was quite old. She walked with a slight tilt to her left and her eyesight was failing. She formed part of the dowry my mother had brought along after marriage. In her present state of health, it was unlikely that anybody would be generous enough to hire her. Fortunately, I found a culvert with only a couple of loose rocks in place of its long-standing parapets right before I reached the paddy field. On school days the culvert would gobble up my emptied tiffin before I reached home.

Children in the village considered Omar kakka as a boogeyman. Some women even used Omar kakka’s fictitious reputation to intimidate their children when they refused to eat or go to bed on time. However, it did not keep me from being overly curious. When I first prowled the surroundings of the ‘othupalli’ he did not even glance at me. On one occasion I caught him outside, beside a neem tree. He was brushing his teeth with a neem’s stem after his afternoon nap. I appeared to have caught Omar kakka off-guard because children never approached him at such proximity. When he smiled, I noticed his yellow teeth. “Are you not afraid”, I could read his question between his raised eyebrows. When my response was a cautious smile, he too smiled back showing more yellow teeth.

I stopped emptying Nachiamma’s lunch under the culvert. Now that I was familiar with his routine, the next day I arrived early while he was snoring in his nap. I left Nachiamma’s lunch packet beside his rock-splinter-oven. The successful execution of my strategy lasted only two more days. On the fourth day when the sleeping Omar Kakka’s hand extended to reach my arm, I almost screamed, and I felt all the blood from my face had drained out. He had caught me red-handed, yet that broke the ice.

As I became a regular at his lodging, Omar kakka found Nachiamma’s lunch more sumptuous than any meal he had ever tasted. After he’d washed up, he would light a ‘beedi’, or rather a half-‘beedi’ most of the times, and then begin our story-telling sessions. Omar kakka turned out to be a universal storyteller, be it the emergence of Cleopatra out of the carpet-roll before the invading Roman general, or tales of local heroes/heroines, his tell-tale sagas would transport me through unheard of horizons across the vast Arabian and Persian deserts. Among them all, the one I loved most was the story of Sohrab and Rustom. When the story began to unfold through the coarse but unpretentious voice of Omar kakka, the labyrinth of high land, rows of sesame hulls, ‘othupalli’ and the green meadow slowly disappeared from my line of vision. The armies of Persia and Turan were preparing for battle. To avoid massive bloodshed and regain the confidence of the Turan army, Sohrab decides to fight Rustom in single combat. Sohrab knew that his father’s name was Rustom. Yet, he was unaware that the man he was going to wrestle with was his father. The father and son fought each other for what seemed like an eternity, neither knowing the true identity of his challenger. As the bout proceeded it began to wear down the older man. In Persia he was a legend in his own right. Fearful about his reputation, he wanted to end the fight quickly and stabbed Sohrab straight through the heart. It was then that Rustom identified the necklace on Sohrab’s chest: the same necklace that he had given to the princess before he left her kingdom with his missing stallion several years ago. He had also made her promise that if she bore him a boy, she would ensure that the boy wore the necklace as a token from his father. Upon hearing of the untoward fight between the father and the son, Sohrab’s mother rushed to the battlefield; however, she arrived too late. Heart-broken, she could only watch through teary eyes her son lying dead in his grieving father’s arms. Only when Omar kakka’s voice had fallen silent did I return from the castles of sand to the ramshackle living quarter of my storyteller.

When I returned home that evening I felt my entire body burning. My mother found my eyelids were drooping and came close to feel my forehead and throat. She told Nachiamma to prepare some chicken soup for me and asked my father to take me to the indigenous doctor in our neighbourhood. Gopalan kaniyan, diagnosed me with chicken pox.

The following three weeks I was confined to the bed in the smallest room in our house between the master bedroom and the dining area. The only window in the room opened to the pathway that extended to the entrance of our house. I watched people’s feet, cat’s paws, and bicycle tyres moving across through the three-inch rectangular gap at the bottom of our gate. The vesicles on my chest, hands and legs burst as I scratched them with my fingernails, eventually extending the healing period. None except my mother dared to come near me for fear of catching the contagious illness. As I lay alone in the bed staring at the wooden ceiling through the thin grey veil of incense smoke, I thought of Omar kakka. Omar kakka was a lonely soul living all by himself in the wilderness of the high ground. What would he have eaten without being served Nachiamma’s tiffin? Lately, Omar kakka had started standing outside his shed awaiting my arrival. Was it only for the food I brought in the tiffin box or did he secretly cherish the moments of togetherness he had not experienced for a long time. May be he was hoping to reap what he didn’t sow.

On the morning of the first day to school after my illness, I noticed ‘mollakka’ standing with two other men in front of the shed where Omar kakka lived. As I was already late for school I ran off without bothering much about what those men were doing outside Omar kakka’s encampment.

While I was returning that evening I wondered what story Omar kakka would have ready for me. The orange bucket lay on its side beside the well making a hissing noise when the wind hit its broken bottom. As I approached Omar kakka’s house, it appeared deserted. I pulled at the cluster of coconut leaves and bamboo sticks in place of the only door to the shed. It opened wide. But there was no trace of Omar kakka. Except for the empty coir cot and the plain clothing line, the inside appeared neat and tidy, as if Omar kakka had never lived there. Where could he have gone? When I heard approaching footsteps, I turned back to find ‘mollakka’ standing there like a lost child. He was not the cold, unemotional and manipulative man everyone thought he was. I came looking for one and ended up with another. The words tumbled out of his mouth as if he had learned them by rote, “He got chicken-pox, but he didn’t know. He used to take bath morning 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 noon prayer.”

The sky was seamless, but the orange from the twilight was eating up its blue. With ‘mollakka’ no one could tell, yet from behind those impassive muscles lining his face something sober began melting into his eyes.

I did not know how to respond. I ran across the paddy field towards home. I did not go to the kitchen for the usual banana fry and glass of Horlicks Nachiamma would have kept ready for me. But no one noticed. I threw my books over the small study table and tried to sit there alone for a while. My mother walked past the veranda before the study room. I was afraid she would ask me whether I had had my malt drink. I felt restless. I walked towards the backyard and sat over the wooden plank of the swing hung from the tamarind tree branch. Some people, like flowers, sprouted in your life without you being aware of them. Was endearment a hurtful slip-up? Was happiness evil? I was experiencing the pain of losing what I had liked very much for the first time. It was not that I always got what I had wanted. But until now I had never been in a situation where I lost something that I had treasured so much. It happened so unexpectedly that I felt the soil giving way from under my feet. I hoped that if only the world stopped in its track at least for a second, but it didn’t.

For how long did I sit there looking at the distant skyline through the tamarind leaves, I had no idea. A cool breeze rustled my unruly hair and gently caressed my cheeks. Sometimes one got tired of being strong too. The sun had conveniently chosen to disappear beyond the horizon. 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 why the moon now appeared in broken bits? I felt drained and fidgety. A rooster crowed from its shelter in Kassim Rawther’s house. I heard Nachiamma calling out my name. I ran towards the house.