Befriending the Dangerous
Whenever the river was in spate – and that occurred every other year – village Kulida, the home of my second elder sister Snehelata, turned into an island, though the menacing water did not invade the habitation because of its altitude.
The easy means of crossing the submerged paddy fields around the isolated village were canoes carved out of single palm trunks. Such a canoe could carry up to three passengers if they were not bulky.
A chunk of the elevation on which the village had cropped up some three generations ago had a thick wood – almost a small forest, jackals and mongooses constituting the major part of its population, a fox or two making an occasional guest appearance. The forest was the perennial source of fuel for the kitchens in the village.
One evening, during a flood, a villager who was collecting dry twigs from the brink of the forest, saw a pair of bluish eyes surveying him. They must have been a jackal’s, he concluded and, without a second thought, went over to a bush closer to the creature. But when he hurled a clod of earth towards it, his ego piqued because it did not care to move away as a mark of deference to a superior being like him. The creature gave out a mild roar.
The villager ran for dear life and reported his find to the village elders who directed all the households to shut their doors immediately. Many led their cattle and goats into their inner courtyards. Those with unsafe huts took shelter in the houses of their neighbors. Needless to say, there was no question of anybody enjoying normal sleep. How could anyone, with a tiger camping a few yards away – or perhaps roaming the village streets?
A quick census in the morning of the folks and their domestic animals established that all had survived the wild intruder.
But to put up with a tiger indefinitely was out of the question. The villagers bravely surrounded the forest, armed with lathis, shovels, sickles, crowbars, axes and bows, the owner of the sole muzzle-loader in the village leading the unprecedented operation. They beat drums and empty tin boxes and slowly tightened their ring.
The beast was soon detected hiding in a bush. Strangely, it seems to have resolved neither to fight nor to make any effort to escape. The muzzle-loader's bullet struck it. It stayed put, immobile. Arrows continued to be shot at it till the gunman loaded his weapon – a time-consuming job - and fired for a second time.
In the role of hunters for the first time in their life, the villagers waited for a full hour before approaching their prey. It was a tigress, killed, leaving behind one dead cub and two in dazed state.
When news of the extraordinary operation reached the nearest police station, the officer-in-charge rushed to the spot, accompanied by his whole battalion of constables, and took charge of the dead tigress and one of her living cubs. Forthwith he proceeded to the district headquarters, to make a gift of the cub to the English Collector, and, as the villagers later learnt, to claim credit for having come to their rescue against the menacing tigress.
The other cub fell to the share of the leading family in the village – my sister's. She sent a message to me, inviting me to see her charge. I set out immediately, covering the four hours of walking distance in three hours, ignoring my gasping and sweating fat escort’s pleas to slow down.
We reached the embankment on the Coast Canal a little before mid-day. A canoe captained by Ajoy, a younger brother of my sister’s husband, awaited us on the other side of the canal. Their village, some two miles away, looked like an exotic island.
Our canoe pushed forward, my companion succeeding in catching two fish with a clever maneuver of his palms while I took charge of the pole. It took us an hour to reach the village. The canoe entered a pond, which had then become an unidentifiable part of the vast expanse of water, and touched the high verandah of my sister's house. As I leaped out of it, I was greeted by a soft growl from the silky little wonder held by my smiling sister to her bosom.
It was a love at first sight. The tiger cub came into my arms after feigning some reluctance and then refused to leave me even when I wanted it to do so. It ate its lunch with me and when I lay down for a nap, it slept on my chest and scratched me if I kept my eyes shut for more than a minute.
Our friendship deepened during the week that followed. Once in a while the cub would slip into a depressed mood and refuse to recognize me or my sister and run to darker nooks and crannies of the house with a bewildered look. Was that because it remembered its mother and the forest? That was the conclusion I reached. I was very annoyed with those who had killed the tigress, the gunman in particular.
One afternoon I found the gunman alone on the verandah of his house. ‘How could you shoot a lonely tigress nursing her cubs?’ I charged him, almost sure that he would look daggers at me and rebuff me. What happened left me perplexed. Tears filled his eyes. It was as if he was waiting to blurt out his anguish to someone. He pulled me onto his verandah and made me sit on a stool. He crouched before me and dashed his forehead on the ground several times. ‘I'm a sinner – a perfect one. How I wish the tigress had torn my breast asunder! Instead, she calmly suffered our cowardly assault. Has a night passed without my dreaming of her? Oh those eye of hers! Woe to me! Woe to me a hundred times!’
The hunter wailed in a subdued voice.
‘I’m sure, she had decided to die – and she let it happen at the earliest opportunity,’ I said, feeling guilty.
‘This is what I call wisdom,’ he said gravely, trying to smile, as I left him.
My Dusserah holidays were coming to an end. It was time for me to return home. The thought of separation from the cub must have reduced me to a pathetic sight. How to suppress my tears at the time of departure was my private worry.
At last the time came and I shed tears, but for a different reason and without any embarrassment – when my beaming sister suddenly thrust the cub into my arms and disclosed that she bad persuaded her father-in-law and the others who mattered, to let me have it.
I smiled through my tears. How many sisters on earth could make gifts of tiger cubs to their little brothers?
The cub, put in a basket, cushioned and loosely covered, was carried on head by a beaming servant who followed me. The flood had receded and we plodded through mud and swamp up to the Canal embankment. Thereafter I enjoyed every moment of my walk through a dozen or so villages – as the dogs barked at the smell from the basket and students and teachers of a couple of primary schools surrounded us with the request to take the lid off the basket for a moment, as the news of the trophy we carried had somehow spread ahead of us.
This proudest travel in my life culminated with a hundred men and women of our village receiving us. The cub clung to me, making me feel absolutely special.
By sundown our neighborhood carpenter had made a wooden cage. Everybody was so eager to serve the guest that a little girl brought a tiny cotton pillow – something she had made for her doll, to be placed inside the cage. A yard of old carpet had been used to make a bed for it.
The cub resented being caged. But there was no question of our leaving him at large at night. Its resentment grew fiercer on the second night and it scratched my hands when I closed the cage; on the third night it had to be forced in. On the fourth night it had escaped into our garden before we would cage it. It was a moonless night and we kept searching till an hour past midnight, but in vain.
I could hardly sleep for the rest of the night. Our search resumed at dawn. We found the cub lying dead under a bush, its body bruised and a clot of blood on its neck. Nearby was a hole. It must have fought the dweller of the hole – the cobra, was the elders opined.
We buried it. I shied away from everybody the whole day.
‘Look here, my boy,’ said a wise man desiring to console me, ‘it would have grown up day by day like the waxing moon and think of a day when we would have been obliged to live with a fully grown tiger. The Government would have compelled you to deport it to the forest anyway!’
‘And I too would have gone into the forest with it. Do you understand, Uncle?’ I shouted, to the gentleman's great embarrassment.
(From Chasing the Rainbow: Growing Up In An Indian Village by Manoj Das,
Oxford University Press, New Delhi)
Bhola Grandpa and the Tiger
Bhola Grandpa and his wife lived at the western end of our village. Their hut was overshadowed by a large bokul tree which, with the advent of spring, grew luxuriant and continuously showered its tiny red fruit on their courtyard. The tree had become the permanent abode of a small troop of monkeys. Bhola Grandpa and his wife did not mind that.
I vividly remember the moonlit night when we were returning from the festival in honor of Lord Shiva. Still considered a child, I had chances galore to travel perched on the shoulders of able-bodied villagers. The road was long and, far above the fog, the moon looked like suffering from a bad cold. I nodded off on the village Chowkidar’s shoulders.
Father was looked upon with awe and reverence, and the villagers considered it a privilege to walk in his company. Bhola Grandpa, senior to him by a few years, was always more prompt than the others in expressing his agreement with whatever Father uttered.
But suddenly Bhola Grandpa gave out a loud wail.
Taken aback, our party came to a halt. Anxious enquiry revealed, by and by, that Bhola Grandpa had led his daughter’s son, who was of my age, to the festival. He piloted the grandson through the jostling throngs with two of the boy’s fingers held tightly in his grip. He did not realize when those fingers slipped out. His grip, however, continued intact.
It was when someone queried about the content of his grip that he remembered the grandson and gave out the wail.
Father chose two keen-eyed escorts from our party and directed them to go back with Bhola Grandpa to the festival site. The grandson, who had found a congenial shelter under a cow’s belly and kept blinking at the unfamiliar people passing by, was rescued before long.
I remained alert for the rest of the journey and heard Father recount the following anecdote:
Bhola Grandpa, whose father and grandfather too had been in our employment, spent most of his time in our house. One afternoon, decades ago, he was found sprawling in a corner of our veranda with his tongue stretched out. A shiver ran through those who found him in that bizarre state. They took him for dead.
What, however, had happened was this: an hour earlier someone had broached to him a proposal for his wedding. Modesty had made him stretch out his tongue. He had just forgotten to withdraw it while falling asleep.
I remember Bhola Grandpa blushing and hanging his head while Father narrated to an amused audience on our terrace the next day yet another episode of their younger days:
That had been a wet afternoon. Bhola Grandpa, looking wild with excitement, confided to Father and his friends that he had spied upon a gang of pirates burying a large box under one of the sand dunes on the lonely seashore by our village. He had also watched the gang disappear into the sea, their sleek dinghy shooting like an arrow into the mist.
Father and party at once began exploring the possible spots for the hidden treasure. Evening gave way to night. There was no light save for the moonbeams filtering through the clouds, and no sound except for the wind’s moaning and the hooting of an owl from the hollow of a palm tree struck dead by lightning. A pack of jackals howled, indicating that it was past midnight.
Suddenly Bhola Grandpa was seen collapsing on the sand. His friends rushed to him. Bhola Grandpa never spoke a lie. He soon composed himself and confessed that it was all a dream which he had had during his midday nap. He had somehow mistaken the dream to be a fact.
The locale of the most significant incident in Bhola Grandpa’s life had been the Sundarbans where the great river Ganga, flowing all the way from the Himalaya, divided into a hundred surging streams and dashed into the sea. The region was marked by clusters of thick jungle. Royal Bengal tigers stalked the picturesque islands between the narrow serpentine branches of the Ganga. My forefathers, though belonging to Orissa, were among the few landlords who owned chunks of estates in that dangerous region of Bengal.
Bhola Grandpa was periodically sent there to manage the property.
In the Sundarbans of those days nobody would walk alone even in daytime. Tigers apart, alligators frequently sneaked in from the swamp. People took care to move about only in groups, particularly after sundown. Often they were led by a necromancer who, from time to time, gave out a piercing yell that could not be imitated by the uninitiated. The eerie sound was believed to drive away or immobilize all beings, natural or supernatural, hostile to man.
Bhola Grandpa was returning from the weekly market in the company of a group of people belonging to the neighborhood of our camp. He did not remember when he had fallen behind the party.
He woke up to the fact that he was alone when, at a distance of about five yards in front of him, a full-grown Royal Bengal tiger gave a jolly growl, fixing his bright gaze straight on his face.
Bhola Grandpa, a swift climber, instantly clambered up a banyan tree at hand. The tiger roared and circled the tree innumerable times. Then it settled down under a bush and continued in that position without taking its eyes off its slipping prey even for a moment.
With nightfall the forest grew dark and silent. Bhola Grandpa could hear the bored tiger beating its tail on the dry leaves and scratching the ground from time to time. He could see its bluish-yellow eyes rolling all over the tree. Hours passed.
Dawn broke out with the cooing of a couple of doves. Bhola Grandpa came down. There was a hamlet of Santhals on a mound less than a furlong away. Bhola Grandpa climbed the mound and requested the first man he saw for a little fire to light his beedi.
The man had been a witness to all that passed between the tiger and Bhola Grandpa. In fact, he had spent the whole night sitting at the threshold of his hut, waiting to see what would happen next.
He eyed Bhola Grandpa with perfect bewilderment. ‘What is your secret, Sir, that you walked past that hungry beast and it just gaped at you and did nothing more?’ he mumbled out his question at last.
Bhola Grandpa remembered the tiger and looked askance towards the bush. The tiger was seen stretching its limbs and yawning and preparing to leave the place as though its bewilderment was giving way to a sense of disgust against itself.
Bhola Grandpa is said to have passed out for a moment.
Half a century later, one winter morning Bhola Grandpa was found to have died peacefully in his sleep. He was ninety-five. Even then we shed tears and lamented his death volubly.
But the most original of the laments came from the eighty-year-old granny, Bhola Grandpa’s wife. ‘The old man must have forgotten to breathe!’ she murmured with a sigh.
(From Selected Fiction of Manoj Das, Penguin Books, New Delhi with permission from the author.)
The Bewildered Giant
An Original Fairy Tale
Lovely was the moonlit night and, no wonder, the forest looked enchanted as much as the glade and the silver brook running across it, bubbling sweetly all the while. The forlorn princess stood leaning against a Chompuc tree teeming with golden flowers that flooded and delighted the region with their exotic fragrance. All of a sudden a huge shadow fell across the glade, and the princess saw a giant regarding her with what appeared to be the very height of curiosity.
She heaved a sigh of despair.
“Why did you sigh?” asked the giant, coming closer with hesitant steps.
“Speaking frankly, I never expected a giant at such a wonderful hour,” said the princess. And, after yet another sigh, added, “In fact I was expecting the Prince of Horizon.”
“The Prince of Horizon? Doesn’t that sound rather familiar to me? Woe to my awful memory, but, if you don’t mind, who is he?” queried the giant.
“A brave and charming prince, of course. He appeared to me in a vision one night as delightfully moonlit as this and told me that he would come to our rescue. But now everything seems to be lost!” lamented the princess as she sighed again.
The giant, who listened to her with attention oozing out of his ears and eyes, also looked sad. “I’m sorry - and no less surprised that you did not swoon away at the sight of a giant like me,” he observed, but without a bout of lusty laughter as giants are expected to do.
“Do you consider yourself quite frightful? Only if you knew the kind of giant we had to face earlier! Why do you think we are in a forest? A terrible giant destroyed our nice little city. He devoured many, though many more escaped into unknown destinations. He had a fancy for the blue blood. That is why we - my parents and I - had to flee our castle,” explained the princess.
“How familiar your story sounds! Isn’t that strange? I feel rather bewildered. But goodness me, I’m hungry, as hungry as a giant!”
“No wonder, for you’re a giant proper,” the princess reminded him.
“I am, alas. But do you by any chance know the menu for a giant’s dinner? Some thing queer has happened inside my head. I feel a hollow where there should be what you call knowledge of things,” informed the giant regretfully.
“I never knew that a giant could crack a joke. Well, I know very well, as do you that I cannot escape. Eat me up if you must. But please promise me that you’ll go away appeased; you’ll spare my noble but hapless parents,” said the princess, trying to speak between her sobs.
“Eat you?” shouted the giant. “Eat you?” he shrieked this time. Then he screamed repeating the words. “Eat you — the most b — beau-beautiful, the most s —sw —sweet princess I had ever known?” he reached the highest pitch before breaking into tears.
The princess stood astounded and undone. “Strange! Whoever heard of a weeping giant? At least not I. Nor have I read about it in any book,” she murmured in a soliloquy.
But something much more strange was happening right before her very eyes. As the giant wept, he seemed to be getting smaller and smaller.
“Stop weeping, please! I’ve already started believing you. Well, I suppose you don’t mean to dine on me, after all. Nevertheless, you do have to eat something. Wait, my parents have gone to sleep. It should be easy for me to fetch my share of the dinner for you.”
The princess darted off and returned with some fruits and a cupful of milk.
“Would you believe? The trees around our hut lean over us so that we can pluck their fruits easily. A wild cow appears before our hut and continues to low until we have milked her. Such is the air of love that prevails in this wooded valley. No wonder that even a giant - you are a gentleman giant, I’m sure - would feel inspired to spare me!” observed the princess.
The giant had already gulped down the milk and was busy munching the fruits, blinking at the princess all this while, as if trying very hard to understand whatever she said.
But as soon as he finished eating, he broke into a fairly loud wail - and began to get even smaller.
“What a nasty giant I am! I wolfed down your entire dinner!” he cried.
“I know that people grow pale and lean with excessive weeping. But I never knew that by simply shedding tears one could diminish in size, just like a melting snowball,” observed the princess.
“Don’t believe that I am not bewildered myself!” said the giant, who couldn’t stop weeping and shrank even faster. Soon he was no bigger than a toy.
“It is time you stopped weeping altogether. Otherwise hardly anything of you would remain,” cautioned the princess.
“Really?” the giant not only stopped weeping, but also sported a smile. And to the great surprise of the princess, he soon began to laugh.
And now that he was a wee toy of a giant, his laughter sounded like the twangs of a sitar.
“Was the prospect of your shrinking to a vanishing point very funny?” asked the princess, who stood absolutely confused.
“Why? Don’t you see the point? If I vanish I won’t have to gobble up your food! You won’t have to starve on my account!” replied the giant and he laughed even more uncontrollably, his laughter now sounding like the lilting strains of a remote flute.
He frolicked and romped around like a squirrel. Then, before the eyes of the amazed princess, a strange change came over the tiny giant. He turned into a bird.
“Now I understand,” he whistled. “When a giant weeps, he diminishes. When he laughs, he changes into a bird.”
“You can’t imagine how sweet you look,” said the princess, dancing and clapping delightedly. “I would like you to remain with me forever. I will feed you with only the tastiest of fruits.”
“Only a little piece would do, sweet princess, and I would no doubt love to remain with you. But I can’t help feeling a bit bewildered…”
“You will sing to me, sweet bird, and I too will sing to you,” said the princess warmly.
“Will you? Please do, sweet princess. Maybe I’ll have some respite from my bizarre bewilderment listening to your song!”
So the princess began to sing. It was a song all about the tranquil night and the twinkling stars, about an ever-smiling moon and a little cloud which had lost its way…
As she sang, she forgot herself and kept gazing into the sky. When her song ended, she remained perfectly still, engrossed in thought.
Suddenly a voice broke in:
“Look here, sweet Princess, I’m no longer bewildered!”
The voice sounded entirely human - surely the best possible kind of it.
The princess turned to look and, lo and behold! What should she find but a charming young man smiling upon her.
“Don’t tell me that a giant turns into a young man when he listens to a song!” said the princess. And she observed to her great thrill that the young man’s appearance matched the vision she had had of the Prince of the Horizon down to the last detail.
“He does, O Princess, if he was originally a young man who had changed into a giant,” the young man explained with a gentle bow and said further, “I am the Prince of Horizon. I had to accept a spell and grow into a giant myself so that I could destroy the real giant that wrought havoc on your kingdom. I put an end to that menace at last - and I must hasten to inform you that your land and your castle have been restored to you - but then I forgot who I really was. It is you who restored me to my true self!”
The prince bowed in gratitude.
“But is it not you who destroyed the giant and restored our kingdom?” murmured the princess as she, in turn, bowed in gratitude.
Somehow they found so much to talk about that they quite forgot time. As the king and the queen were out in search of their daughter as soon as the day broke, they discovered them looking deep into each other’s eyes, hand in hand.
And after they had been married, they paid a visit to the forest one moonlit night and it so happened that both of them muttered simultaneously, “I feel a bit bewildered!”
And it so happened that, looking equally amused, both simultaneously asked, “Why?”
And it so happened that both replied simultaneously, “I wonder if I deserved you!”
(From A Bride inside a Casket and other stories, originally published by Times Books International, Singapore, subsequently by W.H. Allen, London and later by National Book Trust India.)
The General's Grand-daughter
At the center of the sprawling lawns in front of his bungalow fortified by pine and casuarinas trees, the General stood leaning slightly backward against a table, facing the solemn audience of his lieutenants. He spoke with the somberness of an Arabian Nights genii and seemed to conduct the emotions of his audience by the orchestral movement of his baton. If in the tender sunlight the dew-dust on his moustache dazzled like a sprinkle of crushed diamond, his little grand-daughter dazzled behind him like a diamond doll. She wore a frock of silver georgette and had tied her hair with a strip of orange velvet. Unknown to the General she had climbed the table.
And that was with a purpose. She embarked on a mute caricature of her grandfather. The General did not see it, but his lieutenants had no choice. Soon they looked almost weird, thanks to the incredible demand of the situation: their obligation to listen to the boss with concentration and submission, and an awful urge to burst their spleen at the child’s gimmicks. Rarely had a situation in the battlefield proved so exacting.
But the fairy of good luck smiled on them. The General cracked a joke. They burst into the longest ever laughter of the season. The General’s moustache seemed to spring to life as he smiled in bright flashes. He was waking up to the great humorist in himself.
But the grand-daughter’s sonorous mimicry outlasted the chorus of laughter.
“Guddy!” The General turned back as jumpily as an ordinary soldier would react at his captain’s unexpected holler.
“Guddy!” the child babbled out, copying the giant’s gesticulation.
Just then a messenger handed over a note to the General.
The boss grew grave. He wiped the dew off his moustache and, with an impressive snort, told the officers, “I would like you to wait. Maybe I’d be able to bring some important message for you.”
He tucked his baton under his left armpit and made an about-turn.
“Grandpa, take me!” Guddy raised and waved her tiny arms.
“How could I?” asked the General dismissing her demand.
“How could you?” Guddy showed his readiness to jump into his arms as a practical answer to his question. But as he moved away, she began stomping the table.
The General came closer to her and kissed her. “Crazy! If both of us leave, who would attend upon these gentlemen? Aren’t they our guests? Shouldn’t you, on my behalf, keep them engaged and in good humor? I’ll bring you toffees. Bye!”
The General made an about turn and left.
Guddy’s face, as loving as a rose, swelled with surging sobs. The General’s car was heard starting. As soon as its sound died down, Guddy resumed stomping and, her eyes shut, cried, “I’ll go to grandpa!”
“Look here, my sweet child, won’t you rather see an elephant?” asked Maj. Gen. Joseph, modulating his tone to sound like a doting auntie’s.
Struggling with her sobs though, Guddy nodded her willingness to see the wonder promised.
“Here it is,” announced Joseph, dragging Aurora, his portly colleague, out of the throng.
Guddy wiped her eyes and surveyed Aurora skeptically.
“But I’ll like to see a tiger,” she murmured.
“Very well, child, this is how the tiger roars.” It was Habibulla. He hobbled forward and emulated a roar that was pathetic.
“Does the tiger stand oh two legs and smoke too?” demanded Guddy and in the same breath, remembered her grandfather again.
Habibulla’s predicament was great fun for the officers. But the veteran at once threw away his cheroot and admitted that the tiger, in fact, had four legs and that it was a confirmed non-smoker. Then, known as he was for his strategies, he crouched on the grass.
“Look here, child, this is how a tiger, if it turns a man-eater, is shot down,” said Rahim and he knelt down and aimed his baton at Habibulla and gurgled out a sound meant to approximate a gun-shot. Habibulla sprawled as if finished.
The officers applauded the performance.
Guddy displayed a lightning smile but, before many had noticed it, reverted to her gloom.
“What if a bear comes?” she wondered aloud.
“Then the bear and the hunter will be locked in a wrestle, like this,” replied Yashvir Singh as he pounced upon Rahim. Their wrestle, growl and subdued scream drew lusty cheers.
Even then Guddy did not look quite amused. The officers, unanimous on their duty to keep her happy till the General’s return, played the camel, the wolf, and the gorilla. Guddy would look pleased for a moment, only to resume whimpering at the earliest.
The General was back.
“Grandpa, you’re hopeless! How could you be so late?” Guddy demanded looking as bright as ever, though a little serious. Then her head pressed against the General’s chest, she murmured, “You entrusted those boys of yours to my care, didn’t you? You won’t believe how much I had to act to keep them in good humor. Come out with my toffees!”