Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mani once confessed to me during one of our drinking nights that he was afraid of his emotions. Mortally afraid. Although aside from the two of us, the pub was quite empty, he felt the need to lean over and almost whisper it to my ears. The reason he accorded to this strange trait was that he never had a single “pure” emotion.
His warm breath tickled my ears and I backed away, slightly uncomfortable. We were so close as friends, the occasional awkwardness was not entirely uncommon, but it wasn’t something I was willing to have at the back of my head, especially on one of these much awaited drinking nights. So I brushed the thought aside and turned to look at him putting on my best expression of confusion. A little stirred, he continued;
He said his emotions were always a cocktail. A cocktail he didn’t quite enjoy. He didn’t know whether to trust his gaiety, which, at any instance could just metamorphose to melancholy at the slightest of spurs. He didn’t know if the affection he felt for someone would the very next minute be replaced by irritation at the very sight of the person. It confused him.
“Bastardized”, sounded his drawling voice over the music. “Besmirched by the vagaries of life”, he said in a poetic flourish, throwing his hands up in the air for effect.
For Mani, anger was always ineluctably accompanied by guilt and love with fear; he would frequently get angry and sad and sad and angry with little sundry emotions scattered, ahead and behind in time. He never understood any of it.
Although he was known as one of the thicker guys in our group in college, he was well loved for his rather trollish affability. He was the quintessential gentle giant, at six foot three he was broad as a tree bark and quite intimidating to behold. But once you got to know him you couldn’t help but worry if the big baby would catch a cold while riding his rickety bicycle back home from college, or if he had been offended by something someone might have told him, or for that matter, if he had had his meals at all over the last few days.
Tonight our man was in a gin-inspired, philosophical state of mind and the last thing I wanted was to deny my buddy audience. I poured him another one.

He said; “I miss the days when being happy meant being happy, that’s it! You know, not happy and worried, that’s a qualified emotion, bloody adulteration…not being worried about Monday you know, love meant just plain, stupid love and lust meant lust, not love, friendship and…what’s the word to describe the emotion of friendship?”

“I don’t know…umm…attachment?” I said sheepishly.

“Dhut! That’s not it, Raj you’re drunk. Its bonhomie!”

“Nope, I don't think that’s an emotion either, Mani”

“Really?”, said Mani, scratching his massive head, “well, chalo, we need to get going, need to take the wife for her tennis classes and the son to the boutique…”, “nah, this ones on me", he said, shrugging off my hand extending a credit card, "...for attachment’s sake”

“You driving, Raj?”

“Of course, Mani, I am” said I.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The search party that had accompanied him to the forest had long scampered away. Their fears were confirmed. The forest was after all, unholy.

How fast they had run, village strongmen, big-talkers of valor, upholders of the protective powers of Hindu Gods, disbelievers, the police. He was left alone. Sticks, spades, swords, knives and sundry kitchen equipment the men had brought along for protection and a possible assault lay scattered around him. The many torches that lay on the ground shot dying beams of light in many directions creating a circle of light around where he stood. The circle closed in with every passing minute. The silence pierced his ears as he stood still thinking how he would make his way all the way back to the village.

Then he heard her sing. And for the first time Bhanu felt the cold of the forest. A tremendous chill gripped Bhanu’s sixty year old heart, displacing the grief that it housed in a single gripping moment with realization and he stiffened like a rock. It was the song he had taught her. It was their song. He now had reason to believe, reason to believe that it was her indeed.

His own grand-daughter? His own child? By what spiteful turn of fate had this come to be? What had he done to deserve this? What had the poor child done to deserve this?

It had been a year since she had disappeared into the forest. When the police grew tired of old Bhanu knocking at their doors day and night and sitting outside their offices refusing to leave had they decided to, for the sake of silencing the old man for the time being, take a casual stroll into the forest and take a look around. They entered the dark, cold and leafy interiors of the jungle bantering cheerfully and dangling their sticks and rushed out clamoring and excited. They had found her, floating face down in the fishpond. Bhanu’s world collapsed underneath his feet.

Much debating ensued as to how the girl had died. Many theories were thrown up, causes, from the imagined to the deduced, from the mildly reasonable to the outright bizarre, from the religious to the scientific, all were passionately argued, discussed at tea-shacks, homes and schools. But no one succeeded in so much as zeroing in one plausible cause. Bhanu amidst all this, sat gaping, lost.

Then began the killings. Whoever ventured around the precincts of the forest disappeared and was found a few days later, half eaten, somewhere deep inside the forest. The nature of the killings was particularly grisly which intensified the villager’s fear that the cause – which, for a considerable while was assumed to be a leopard or a tiger – couldn’t possibly have been an animal. And who would explain the cuts and scratches on the bodies, which the forensic babus from the city said had not been caused by claws, but alarmingly, by human nails.

This partly was responsible for the kernel of suspicion that had silently made its way into every villager’s heart. But they told Bhanu nothing. They loved the helpless old man.

Bhanu collapsed on his knees as the darkness enfolded him in it’s cold veneer and whimpered like a scared child. An odd mix of emotions welled up inside him as the distant voice of a fifteen year old came sailing to him clearly through the night air. The voice was strangely sweet and melodious. The voice was strangely unearthly, it belonged to another world. Bhanu felt tender love for his little Aarti.

Suddenly the singing stopped and Bhanu heard the soft crunch of foliage breaking somewhere behind him. He felt a warm breath behind his left ear.

Friday, March 2, 2012

She lived by herself in a small hut at the edge of the forest. The hut - surrounded by fences encircled a small area which she referred to as her garden as well her ‘farm’ – was constructed about five years back with the help of one of her brothers who had come down from an adjacent village where he lived with his family, to put together the house for her. He never charged her anything for it; at least that’s what he maintained. But she was after all his own little sister, she had ‘forced upon him’, as a token of her gratitude, some of her ‘special’ crops which she grew in the farthest corner of her farm, far removed from the other vegetable and flower plants. These special herbs grew quietly and rather unobtrusively at a lonely, ignored corner of the garden and were left in neglect on purpose. She knew he loved to roll them up in a paper and smoke them. It made him act funnily.

At a certain distance from where her hut was, on the banks of the fresh-water stream there lived a settlement. These people had come down the great road in the forest a few years before in caravans and in long lines carrying their belongings and children. Later, she had learnt from some of them, that they had once been citizens of a country far away and were banished from their motherland for having belonged to a lower caste.

What a strange reason for getting rid of so many people from their lands and uprooting them from their livelihoods, she had thought, but, there were a great many wrongs being done in the world that she had heard of from messengers, random passersby and travelers, and she dismissed this as merely one of them and got on with her life.

These people, a melee of about two hundred odd, men, women, children and old folk were the peaceful sort. They had established small trades and occupations at the banks of the stream and set up small vegetable and fish farms for a livelihood. Some of them became carpenters and some, lumberjacks, who would spend a great deal of time in the forests and return with logs of wood around afternoon. The wives, astonishingly, were the quiet types, fights were seldom and crimes rare. Brought together by an odd and tragic twist of fate, these folks lived in rather friendly terms with each other and often regarded each other in familial and friendly terms, as co-sufferers usually do.

Some of these people would at times come over and pay her a visit. A lot of them liked her cooking and didn’t mind bartering their services in exchange of her delicious beef stew. She, in turn, looked forward to the company. The little visits by these gentle people not only took care of a lot of her chores and repair work around the house but also earned her some money. But most of all, she looked forward to their company, to the hours of friendly banter, the loud singing and the banging of mugs of ale on her wooden table.
Scared of what wrath her thought might bring upon her, she became desperate to rid her mind of it. And in her desperation she thought of it more. Her mind imagined it for her. Without warning, it recreated her little thought into an imagery of vivid shapes and sounds. And what she saw sent frigid currents running down her back. Almost immediately little goosebumps burst out all over her fair arms making her skin feel taut. She felt scared yet oddly her nipples hardened and she felt slightly dizzy. Yanking out her hand from her panties she jumping off her bed frantically. She began pacing up and down her room trying hard, her hardest, to think of other things. Like when Anoushka was born, how the baby had bawled and how her mother, cradling the little Anoushka in her arms rocked her silently to sleep. She tried to think of her father driving in the new sedan through the gates of their house. She tried to think of happy things, of good things, yet the mind tenaciously held on to her thought like a child would a candy. No matter how hard she laboured, Vijaya couldn’t extricate the vision of herself urinating on the idol kept in the prayer room off her mind and it’s blasphemous eye.

She bunched both her wrists and struck the sides of her thighs violently. Jumping up and down she stomped the floor for a good few seconds, yet the thought wouldn’t go. Rushing to her table she flopped down and shut her eyes. She tried to imagine the idol sitting before her, decorated beautifully in flowers, redolent in the fragrance of incense and surrounded by devotees, many devotees, loving devotees, their heads hung and hands folded in concentrated prayer. Her lips began moving frantically, as she sought forgiveness from the deity for her ghastly vision. Hands folded she pleaded with her deity earnestly, apologising to him with a face screwed up with intensity. She waved her head slowly from one side to another to effectuate the intensity of her prayer, a range of supplicating expressions running across her beautiful face. Anybody else in the room would think that Vijaya, sitting at her table was begging, passionately to this invisible entity for mercy or for forgiveness for something ostensibly quite horrendous that she had committed. This would, of course, occur as an afterthought to the notion that poor Vijaya, must have gone quite mad.

Nevertheless, this imaginative trip did help a little. She saw the God nod his head and smile. He then raised his hand in a gesture of blessing and spoke in a stentorian yet gentle voice than seemed to boom from everywhere. He said;

“Fear not, little one. I am not angry at you. Although I do not understand the cause for such an imagination, you are forgiven. You have incurred no divine retribution young one. After all, it was I who invented teenage and puberty, I, who composed hormones, I….”

Vijaya brought her wrists down on the table hard and gritted her teeth. Damned mind.
Fazal must have been louder than he realized, as, the minute he had uttered the words the crowd fell silent. Whatever he had said rang out loud and clear over the din of the crowd and echoed across the grounds. Everyone had heard him. A gentle breeze blew across the arid desert and carried plumes of sand swirling and rushing like waves over the dunes. One by one, the warriors turned to face him. In the deathly silence the gravity of his remark began to bear upon him in a way that scared him into feeling that he might just have made the biggest mistake of his life. Fazal grew nervous, enough to run away as fast as his legs could carry him, he was least prepared for such a reaction. He would get far though, and he knew it. It wasn’t just these people’s unusual coldness towards him, he wasn’t even sure if they realized that he understood their cause or for that matter their lives, their stories. He drew in a lungful of the hot desert air, adjusted his helmet and fought against himself to stand absolutely still.

The faces surrounding him bore no inviting expressions. Slashed faces, gouged eyes, bared teeth and open wounds stared at him from a distance of a mere few feet. There were eyes that penetrated him causing his stomach to twist with fright, scowls and clenched jaws, which looked piercingly into his soul engraving bloody depictions of death on the empty walls of his teenage mind. These people were seasoned fighters, children of the sand, they had grown up seeing their houses blown to pieces, their mothers, sisters and wives raped, their newborns trampled upon and their brothers and friends cut to pieces by the Wahadis. Their scars told sordid tales of decades of rape, mutilation, economic exploitation and a systematic and rapid genocide that had stolen from them not only their childhood, but also their forefathers, their history, their heritage, friends and family. These souls did not know love, nor did they tolerate happiness, even compassion. Happiness, they believed distracted their minds from their cause, which was and always shall be the utter annihilation of the last of the Wahadis. If there was any education these rebels had given their children it was to hate the Black Army. The rebel children were schooled to repeatedly chant oaths of the Black Army’s destruction every minute of their growing days, children, the minute they learnt to stand steadily on their two legs were taught to nestle automatic rifles to familiarize their tender arms with the cold metal of the firearm.

These people, Fazal realized, weren’t ones to tolerate so much as a word that had nothing to do with either beheading a Wahadi or a plan to steal into one of their camps and blow something up. But now that he had already suspended himself on the tightrope of their attention there was no other way, if not ahead.
Gulping gently, Fazal spoke;

“I have been inside the secret garden of Firdaus, I know the way in”


“I…I can get at least three of you inside from a secret rear entrance at the foot of the mountains of Rooh, I know where they lie.”

Not a word.

“If we creep into their security bunkers as stealthily as we can and take out their peripheral guards, we...we can, maybe, make a quick trip to Firdaus and back before they call for reinforcements…they aren’t even that well armed, swords, machetes, the most we can expect is maybe a Kalashnikov or two, but that’s going to be it…I am sure!”