In 1965, India had more banyan trees than toilets across the entire country. Under one huge banyan tree, fifty-one tribesmen, naked down to their loincloths, squatted on the ground, holding sticks in their hands for support, looking as if they were going to perform a mass defecation exercise. Their wives, reasonably clothed and reasonably armed with cow dung patties, squatted under another banyan tree.
But no, there was no en masse toilet business going to happen there.
With palms perched on their brows, the tribal folks were scanning the horizon for a white, Ambassador car. They had gathered to beat a politician who was due to arrive that afternoon.
From the sky, white-hot sun poured its angry rays onto a beaten path, a winding river and an assortment of thatched roof huts scattered across the landscape. Boulders stood like dead creatures, their crevices teeming with insects seeking refuge from the burning wind.
The tribesmen were angry with the politician, because he was coming with his own specific agenda, to pursue and enforce the tribesmen to vacate the forested land where they had lived for generations. The government was planning to build a dam in the area over the river, to quench the thirst of people living in a nearby city, called Paraspur. Three successive years of dry spell had dried out the love of government for both nature and the tribesmen. Using the art of statistics, the government had acquired a loan from the World Bank to help the city folks. However, along with the thirst for water, the desire for money and a showdown had also grown gradually and sparked battles between the tribesmen, the government and an environmental group clamouring to preserve the forest.
Kuru, a 48-year-old tribesman had chosen not to be a part of that battle for land today. Not because a man in a cream coloured Safari suit had bribed him earlier with packets of salt, jaggery and beedies, but because he had a much bigger battle to fight directly related to his own life. A stone like lump had seized his neck and brought his life to standstill. His breath was believed to be poisonous, and his words were thought to bring evil fate to those who would hear them.
He had invited such misfortune by bringing dishonour to his tribe.
For a pot of rice, he had stolen sacred stones from the tribe’s temple and secretly sold them to a professor in Paraspur, who was conducting research on ancient stones. The tribe found out about Kuru’s devious, stealthy act when the greedy professor had returned to buy more stones from Kuru. The chieftain of the tribe spat in the face of the professor, broke his spectacles and humiliated his dignity with a hard slap on his cheek, while verbally warning him that if he ever came back, the tribe would bury him alive near an anthill.
The chieftain then turned his attention to Kuru and did something to him in private that was so vicious, poor Kuru could not walk on his feet again from that day onwards. His neck grew a small boil and it gradually continued to grow in size, from inside. The spirits of the tribe’s ancestors, which routinely visited the body of chieftain’s wife, called Kuru a criminal of the tribe, and issued him additional unholy punishments.
The chieftain expelled Kuru from the tribe. He also confiscated Kuru’s goat, his second wife and the pot of rice. He banned Kuru from growing a moustache — a tribal symbol of pride and the maturity of manhood.
Kuru’s hut therefore carried a cane of shame that whipped him whenever the tribe ran into a problem. The prospect of being rooted out of their land was one of the latest tribal problems for which Kuru’s sin was conveniently held as being wholly responsible. The whip of shame had changed into a noose of late, and was suffocating Kuru’s sick and stagnant soul.
As he lay flat on the ground in his hut, he hinted his teenage daughter, Hola, to sit beside him. Hola was born during a solar eclipse, which had prompted the tribesmen into believing that her life would be full of eclipses. True to their premonition, Hola had lost her mother during childhood and was largely at the mercy of the ever changing mood of her stepmother, until the middle-aged woman had been forced away from Kuru’s hut by the chieftain and made to work as a slave.
Hunger and humiliations had now stolen the flesh from Hola’s body. Collarbones stuck out from her lanky frame making them appear similar to the handlebars of a bicycle.
She perched on the haunches beside Kuru.
As Kuru stared at her, he felt the pain that she was brewing under the air of silence. She was not the same bubbly girl, who used to don flowers in her hair and dance like a peacock. She had acquired the eyes of a dead girl, yes, a dead girl, just like her dead mother. Kuru sighed. He could see in her eyes his own death, reminding him of the curse that he had received from the chieftain’s wife: “You’ll die in utter pain. Our tribe’s demon will stuff arrows into your chest, and with a bare hand, he’ll remove your soul in the presence of our ancestors.”
Kuru shuddered. The hairs on his chest stood straight. He could now hear the voices of his ancestors, loud and clear. He understood that his end was near. The demon was on his way to punish him. It was time to bequeath his assets to Hola before he was gone. He reckoned that after his death, he would not be able to gain the rank of an ancestor amongst his tribe. His spirit would not be allowed to visit the body of the chieftain’s wife, and seek honour from the tribe.
He sighed again and pointed at a wicker basket hidden in a corner. The basket contained a sacred stone that Kuru had still kept with him. “Go to the professor and give it to him,” he said in a voice that seemed to emerge from a cave. It was low-pitched, barely above a whisper.
Hola stared at him blankly. Kuru was telling her to commit the same crime that he had committed. If she was caught, she would spend the rest of her life as a prisoner tied up on the floor of that hut.
“He’ll give you rice. Uff, uff, uff.” Kuru coughed deep and vehemently. Skin of his distended neck fluttered.
Any more spasm from that neck and it would break, Hola thought. With a short nod, she agreed. Her tongue brushed her arid lips.
Kuru raised his palm as if he was blessing her. He was happy. By bequeathing his biggest asset to his daughter, he had arranged a meal for her, no matter how long it would last. He had remembered seeing a strange, intense desire in the professor’s eyes to buy that stone, but he had not sold it thinking that he would sell it in the future when he would need money for Hola’s marriage.
He thought of giving tips to Hola on how to keep the sale secret, but then decided against it as the fear of his painful death besieged him.
He reached for the braided hair of his moustache, which he had kept for such an occasion. He placed the hair below his nose. He was now a wholesome man, complete with pride and manhood. He remembered how he had wooed his second wife using his long, manly moustache. He grinned; his jaw rattled.
Hola placed her palm on his jaw.
Kuru checked that it was not the hand of a demon. He shook his body to confirm that arrows were not stuffed in his chest. And in a moment, he left the world happily, confuting and obliterating the curses that he had carried. He was freed from the world without having to negotiate with the demon.
Hola watched his lifeless body. A bottle fly sat on her nose, scratched a pimple and flew away. But Hola neither hit it, nor jumped wildly to catch it.
Like a puppet, she touched Kuru’s cold feet, and then stood up. She drank the coconut milk that he had left for her, and wiped her mouth with a jute rag. The stone! With a little hesitation, she retrieved the sacred stone from the basket and looked at the stone-like lump grown on the neck of Kuru, as if trying to find a similarity between the two.
A crow cawed outside the hut. Perhaps it was crying; perhaps it was celebrating the death of the tribe’s criminal. Hola was not sure. “Go away,” she murmured with a wave of her hand and stepped outside the hut. She looked around. Should she beat her chest and scream loudly? Should she call old women of the tribe to arrange for a mass wailing? She shrugged.
The tribe had abandoned her family. Now she had to finish the death rituals, all alone. But how? She tried to pray but words did not emerge from her mouth. Frustrated, she reached for a matchbox and set the hut on fire to finish Kuru’s last rituals. Kuru’s body burned together with the crackle of the possessions of the hut, including the packets of salt, jaggery and beedies.
The smoke quickly rushed in the air and made irregular shapes. But Hola did not wait there to contemplate which shape belonged to which objects or animals, unlike what she would have done in some other circumstances.
She walked away without tears or words with the smell of the smoke on her clothes.
Her long, crispy hair played with the dust spewed up by the car of the politician, who was arriving to negotiate the resettlement of the tribe.
Holding the stone tightly in her palm, Hola continued to walk in search of a meal of rice served without curses and eclipses.
That day, the politician did not receive any beating from the tribe. The battle for the land was over even before it could have begun, unlike another war that would break out the next day between India and Pakistan over the land of Kashmir.
The fire that rose from Kuru’s hut engulfed the entire area and incinerated all the surrounding vegetation, tribal structures and most importantly, its label of a forested land. The terrain was cleared in just a few hours and was turned into worthless ash. It was time for the dam to pour water over the resistance, which was still simmering in the minds of some tribesmen.
The burning huts prompted the chieftain and elders of the tribe to think that after his death, Kuru had become a dangerous spirit who would now dispatch evil fate using his infernal powers. Terrified, they prayed to the spirit of Kuru and honoured him with the rank of an ancestor. Kuru — their new, fearsome ancestor — then showed up in the body of the chieftain’s wife, shook her like a tree, spat, uttered profanity and demanded fifty pots of rice with apologies. Kuru’s spirit however did not demand anything for his second wife who had become furniture in the chieftain’s hut.
Within a couple of weeks, a new habitat assimilated the tribe. It was situated a few kilometres away in a mountainous region. The tribesmen arranged for pots of rice to please the spirit using the government’s money that they had received as a part of the resettlement package. The pots lined the new hut of the chieftain.
The people of Paraspur city breathed with relief. They re-elected the politician during the next election, but stormed the office of the environmental group, which was petitioning the World Bank to withdraw the loan. Chants of “Hang the tree-huggers!” rose in the air and silenced the group. The police later recovered five tree-huggers, three men and two women, who were found hanging from their necks on a tree.
Unfortunately, Hola, who had unknowingly resolved the territorial dispute with a single stick from a matchbox, had to continue her journey in search of food and find the professor. Streets of Paraspur swallowed her, as she wandered around and begged with her bag-of-bones frame and the eyes of a dead girl.
Yes, a dead girl.
beedies: locally produced cigarettes filled with tobacco flake and wrapped in dry leaves.
jaggery: unrefined sugar made from concentrated sugar cane juice.
Illustration by Katherine Jones
About the Author:
Pranav S. Joshi is a multitalented environmental professional, a novelist and a poet, whose short story, “Permanent Distance”, received an Honorable Mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition 2010. Pranav holds a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry and an M.Sc. degree in Environmental Engineering. His literary, multicultural novel, Behind a Cultural Cage, depicts the life of a Chinese Indian man (a Chindian), who possesses an Indian mind in a Chinese body. The novel was widely received in Singapore’s literary circles. Pranav has also written numerous poems, and technical papers. He has given talks on local radio and during events organized by the Art House and the National Library in Singapore. He holds Singapore citizenship. For more details, visit his website.
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