Mohanty madam was teaching the class five students of Arya Wonderland about similes.
'As beautiful as?' she asked, looking at the students.
'The rose, the Tajmahal, Aishwarya Rai....' There were several shouts.
'And now, as ugly as?' Mohanty ma'am questioned.
There was a pause then a girl said in a loud and clear voice: 'As ugly as Sarita.'
There were a few giggles, a couple of sniggers and then laughter.
Sarita felt herself burning with shame and pain as all eyes turned towards her....boring into her.....making her feel exposed. She hid her face in her hands and wept.
Yes, she was ugly. Her classmates were right. There was no doubt about it. The left side of her face was completely scarred. There was only a slit where her left eye should have been. And what was left of her ear was a tiny morsel of flesh.
Sarita and her mother had been caught in a fire when she was an infant. Her mother had escaped with a burnt hand, while half of poor Sarita's face had been eaten away by the flames.
Sarita was a happy go lucky child who did not believe in blaming fate or moping over her ill luck. But sometimes when her classmates got really mean, the tears would come.
Sarita was very good in studies. Whenever her classmates needed her notes or wanted to have a doubt cleared, they would come to her. She was kind and forgiving and would willingly help them. But at other times when they did not need her help they avoided her. She longed to have a real friend but she had none.
On the road, in the bus, in the park, wherever she went, people would turn and stare at her. Their faces reflecting many emotions - horror, revulsion, pity but never friendship, affection or even acceptance.
Sarita was very good at drawing. And in the evenings most of the time she spent in drawing and painting. She always drew things which were ugly or rather which were considered ugly - bats, lizards, snails, vultures, toadstools, weeds and everything that was looked at with revulsion or distaste. That is the reason why, despite her talent, she had never won a prize in any painting or drawing competition. Who would select a picture of a toad or a lizard when he or she had lovely flowers, exotic birds and beautiful scenery to chose from?
That evening Sarita decided to draw the ugliest creature imaginable. She thought for some time and got started. After three hours she looked with satisfaction at what she had drawn. It was a strange creature with the body of a lizard, the head of a toad and the wings of a bat. It had two saucer like eyes which looked in opposite directions and snout like that of a wild boar. Its body which was dirty brown had scales which were slimy green in color. It was a magnificently ugly creature. She named it Babolito - a name derived from the first two alphabets of the animals which had inspired the creation.
That night she stuck the painting on the wall opposite her bed and slept. Suddenly she woke up with a start. Someone had called her name. She looked a the painting. It was still there but Babolito had disappeared. She heard a noise and turned around, out in the garden close to the window she saw a shadow looming.
She gasped in surprise. 'It..it...was Babolito - live..!'
The creature, which was the size of a rhinoceros put its head through the window and spoke.
'Little one. Are you scared of me because I'm so ugly?' It had a soothing, gentle voice.
'Of course not. Why should I be scared of anything ugly. I myself am so ugly. I was only surprised seeing you alive.'
'Will you like to come with me?'
'I live in a strange land called Hydroplanet.'
'What a funny name?'
'Yes, it is peculiar name. And you know why it is called Hydroplanet?'
'You know, water changes its shape according to the container it fills. Hydro means water and in Hydroplanet the face of every man, woman and child keeps changing moment by moment.'
'I'll explain. Face, it is said, is the index of the mind. And Hydroplanet is a perfect example of this belief. If someone is thinking cheerful thoughts his face will look happy and contended. If he is frustrated his face will appear angry, irritable and tired. This is one place where no one is ugly or beautiful because nothing is permanent. As your thoughts, so your face.'
'But how will I go?'
'Get on top and hold on to me tightly.'
Sarita followed the instructions and soon with a mighty whoosh Babolito took off. It went higher and higher till they were soaring above the clouds.
Finally Babolito went right through an enormous cloud and stopped in front of a huge gate. The doors opened and they went in. A strange sight met Sarita's eyes. Men, woman and children were busy, walking, talking, jumping, playing, eating. As she watched carefully their faces kept changing every moment.
She saw a tall, muscular man walking ahead.
'That is Adonis. At one time the most handsome man in the universe.'
At the mention of his name the man turned and Sarita gasped. Adonis was anything but handsome. His eyebrows were somewhere on the top of his forehead, his nose was not on his face but three inches in the air and his lips were curled in a permanent smirk. He looked weird.
Seeing the look of surprise on Sarita's face Babolito said, 'I told you little one this is Hydroplanet. Adonis was very handsome but his arrogance has made him look like this.'
Everywhere Sarita went she saw men, woman and children stopping and staring at her with a strange expression in their eyes.
'Why are they staring at me like this. Is my ugliness so stark even in Hydroplanet?'
'Come I'll reveal to you the answer to your question.'
Babolito led Sarita to a huge peepal tree on which was framed an enormous door.
Babolito opened the door and asked her to go in.
'Go on, take a look,' he said.
Sarita entered the tree and stood transfixed. Standing right in front of her was the most beautiful girl she had ever seen in her life. Her lovely eyes filled with warmth, her skin glowing and her face full of joy and happiness - she looked ethereal.
'Who...who is this girl? Is it a fairy?'
'Ha, ha,' Babolito laughed, his body shaking with mirth. 'That girl is you, little one. What you are looking at is a mirror.'
'Me? Is this a magic mirror that makes even the ugliest of things look beautiful.'
'No, silly. I told you, in Hydroplanet what your mind or heart thinks, your face reflects. Sarita you have an innocent mind. You have a loving and forgiving heart. Your face is a reflection of your pure mind and heart. Inside you are a lovely person that is why you are lovely outside.'
Sarita hugged Babolito.
Suddenly there was a blinding flash of light. She opened her eyes and looked around. She was in her room. It was morning and her mother had drawn the curtains. The picture of Babolito was back in the painting on the wall.
'Had it all been a dream?'
She got up and looked in the mirror. she did not see a child with a scarred face. Instead she saw a pretty girl smiling back at her, her lovely face glowing with happiness.
Sarita laughed and looked at Babolito's sketch on the wall. Was it her imagination or did Babolito actually wink at her?
The Chess Players
Ali circled the house. It was a small one at the end of a narrow lane. It was locked. He looked around. The street lights had not been switched on and it was quite dark. The time was around eleven. Ali noticed a window that was open. He climbed on to an adjacent pipe and peeped in. It was not a window but a ventilator of a bathroom. Only the wooden framework was intact, the glass panes were missing.
Ali was a sixteen year old of medium height but very thin. He slipped in quite easily through the ventilator. The bathroom door was open. He went in. It was dark and he couldn’t make out anything. He put his hand in his pocket and removed a torch. He was about to switch it on when there was an explosion. Startled out of his wits, Ali jumped back, the torch falling from his hand.
“Rajesh.....is it you?” he heard a voice ask, followed by the same sound which had scared him stiff. He heard a click and one corner of the room was bathed in soft light. A cot was against the wall and lying on the cot was an old man. At the head of the cot was a table lamp. As Ali watched, not knowing what to do the old man raised his hands and sneezed. As the sound echoed in the room, Ali realized that what he had mistaken for an explosion was merely the old man’s sneeze. He was very frail and thin with white hair, a white moustache and a beard. For his size he packed quite a bit of power in his sneeze.
“Rajesh? Is it you? You are quite late,” the old man said, looking in Ali’s direction and blinking.
“I sat on my glasses by mistake. And now I am half blind. Anyway thank God you have come. Now pull a chair and sit. See I have already set the chess pieces for you. You know it took me more than ten minutes to set the pieces.”
Ali didn’t know what to do. Should he vanish the same way he had come or should he hang on for some time and try to get his hands on to something? The old man looked harmless and there seemed to be no one else in the house.
“What happened Rajesh? You are unusually quiet. I know it is late. But beta you are aware, I wait for our game of chess the whole day. Don’t deny me this pleasure.”
Ali walked up to the bed, picked up a rickety chair and sat in front of the table on which was arranged a chess board.
The old man had sat up and was peering at the pieces.
“I can barely make out the pieces.”
Ali reached out and picking up the table lamp placed it on the stool beside the bed. The light now fell directly on the pieces.
“Good. Now it is much better,” the old man said and picking up the knight played his first move.
In the slum where Ali lived was a cycle repair shop. it was owned by Yadav who was crazy about chess. He had taught Ali the basics of chess. And now Ali considered himself a good player.
The old man looked a picture of concentration. His brows were knit, his eyes fixed on the board, and he seemed oblivious to everything. He had not looked up even once at Ali.
“Hey Rajesh, you seemed to be improving. You are playing quite good. Your last move was a very good one. If you hadn’t moved your rook in time you would have been in serious trouble.”
Soon Ali got completely absorbed in the game. The old man was playing really well. Ali who prided himself on his chess playing abilities was now fighting with his back to the wall. He had lost this queen and both the knights. He tried a desperate gamble and a couple of moves later he was confident he had trapped the old man.
“Check, my dear Rajesh,” the old man said and added, “And mate.” He clapped his hands. Ali looked at the old man’s beaming face and then at his king.
Yes, he had well and truly lost.
“Great, I really enjoyed myself today after a long time. Now what about another game.”
Ali grunted and started arranging the pieces.
“I can’t lose to an old and senile fellow. I have to beat this old man,” Ali thought as he played his first move.
“Who the hell are you,” he heard a sharp voice and jumped out of his chair.
A short and well-built man was standing glaring at him.
“I...I...” Ali could only stammer. He was cursing himself and racking his brains for an escape. Just behind the stocky man was a door. The man advanced towards him and before Ali could back out grabbed his collar and yanked him forward.”
“Answer me you rascal. Who are you?”
“Hey Rajesh, what is this confusion? For the last half an hour you were playing with me. Who is this fellow with you?” The old man was peering at Ali his eyes going blink, blink...”
“Come on Baba? What nonsense are you talking? I entered a minute ago and found you and this rascal sitting comfortably playing chess with you. And now you are telling me you were playing with me and you are asking me who this fellow is? And where are your specs?”
“I...I…broke them beta. And without them you know, I am almost blind. When I saw this man, I assumed it was you. The door was locked from outside and only you have the key.”
Rajesh shook Ali and growled. “So you are a thief is it? You scoundrel you don't have any shame. Breaking into an old and helpless man’s house!” He slapped him hard. Ali felt as if he had been kicked by a mule.
“Wait, Rajesh beta. I don’t think he has stolen anything. And tell me what is there to steal in this old man’s house? This fellow must be a thief. But he did not harm me. He only played chess with me. And you know he plays chess real well, better than you. In fact after years I played chess with an opponent who could match me.”
“So what do you want me to do? Garland this fellow. Present him with a trophy.”
“No, no. But don't hit him. Just let him go.”
“Okay. As you say,” Rajesh released Ali and then looking him into the eye snapped. “Get lost you scoundrel. But if I see you anywhere around I’ll skin you alive and then hand you over to the police.”
Ali heaved a sigh of relief and started walking towards the door when the old man spoke.
“Beta where did you learn to play so nicely?”
“In the slum where I stay.”
“Can you come and play with me every day for an hour or so? I’ll pay you.”
“Baba have you gone mad? The first chance he gets he will slit your throat and walk away with whatever you have in this house.”
“No, Rajesh he won’t. And even if he does how much longer do I have to live. You know after the death of my wife Shakuntala I have had only one interest in life - Chess. And if by spending 30-40 rupees a day I can get some one good to play with, I think it is worth it.”
Rajesh shook his head in disgust.
“Baba, I think you are crazy,” he said and walked out.
From the next day Ali became a regular. Every morning around nine he would come and stay till around twelve or one. Baba would pay him forty rupees for his efforts. In the afternoons and evenings Ali would be busy in his usual rounds looking for pockets to pick or homes to break in.
He came to know that Baba, whose name was Shankar Das, had been a clerk in the income tax office and had retired thirteen years ago. He and his wife had no children and after her death he had been left completely alone. Rajesh was his friend’s son who visited him every evening and played chess. He also attended to Baba’s many requirement’s - getting groceries, doing his bank work and taking him to the doctor whenever the need arose. A part time maid servant came for doing the cooking and other household chores.
Baba would often ask Ali about his childhood, his present life and dreams.
“Baba, I too would have liked to study. But I was an orphan and grew up in slums. I learnt stealing and picking pockets very early in life.”
“Why don’t you try earning your living by honest means?”
“How? I can’t read and write. Who will give me a job? Years ago I worked for a scooter mechanic. I think I have an aptitude for that kind of work. I soon became quite good at it. But one day I had a fight with the mechanic.”
“He used to treat me quite badly. One day he abused me and I walked out. After that I got disgusted and went back to picking pockets.”
“Can you not start a repair shop of your own?”
“I’ll need a minimum of thirty thousand rupees. From where will I get that kind of money?”
Baba remained silent.
A few minutes later Ali was in the railway station near the reservation counter. It was eleven and the place was very crowded.
Suddenly he saw a man remove a wallet from his back pocket. His back was to Ali. He took out a few notes and replaced the wallet. It was thick and fat. In a flash Ali moved forward and mingling with the crowd reached the man. He was now looking at the reservation chart. Ali brushed against the man and within a few seconds he did his job. The wallet was now in his pocket. Just then the man turned and he got a jolt. He looked just like Baba. He was of the same age and had the same gentle and frail looks. Ali cursed himself. He couldn’t pick the pocket of an old man who looked so much like...like.... his Baba.
In an instant he made up his mind and turning back reached the old man. As he was slipping the wallet in his pocket, there was a shout and a tall and burly man caught hold of his neck and started raining blows on him.
“You thief, you rogue. I’ll bash you up.” Soon others joined him.
An hour later Ali found himself in the lock up. His body was aching all over. He tried telling that he was only replacing the wallet but no one believed him.
Three months later Ali was released. He went home changed and almost ran to Baba’s house. He saw Rajesh locking the door.
“Rajesh bhai, where is Baba?”
“Where were you all these days? The old man was looking for you desperately.”
“Where is he?”
“D...died! But how?”
“He had a stroke.”
Ali felt faint. He steadied himself. He did not know what to say. In all these years if there had been one individual with whom he had felt a sense of belonging it had been Baba. And now he too was gone.
“Wait a minute,” Rajesh said and after unlocking the door he went in. A couple of minutes later he emerged with a box.
“This is yours. Baba left it for you.”
Ali mumbled a thanks and taking the box stumbled home.
On entering his house he sat down and opened the box. It was a brand new chess set - in sparkling white and shiny black. He arranged the pieces and started playing ....tears rolling down his cheeks.....
After sometime when he was replacing the pieces he saw a small knob at the bottom. He fiddled with it and slid back to reveal a tiny compartment. It contained a small plastic packet inside which was gold chain. He felt it in his hands - it was quite heavy. Immediately he went to Sadat’s shop which was at the other end of the slum. Sadat dealt exclusively with stolen goods.
Ali showed Sadat the necklace. Sadat looked at it, his eyes widening.
“Where did you get this? You broke into a jewelry shop?”
“That is none of your business. Tell me its worth.”
Sadat went into his shop and emerged ten minutes later.
“I’ll give you twenty thousand.”
“Who are you trying to kid? This must be worth nothing less than forty thousand. See how heavy it is.”
“I’ll not give you more than 27.”
They haggled for some time and settled for thirty one thousand in cash.
Two months later in a lane behind D.N. Road a small scooter repair shop was opened. On the cream colored signboard was the name: Shankar Scooter Repairs. Its proud owner was the former pick pocket and petty thief Ali.
Image (c) Gettyimages.com
There is No King as God
An African Folktale retold
Long ago in Nigeria, in West Africa, lived a king. His name was Yaburo. He was a mighty king whose empire stretched far and wide. He commanded a great deal of respect from his people for he was both intelligent and powerful.
He held a large court three days a week. His people were all welcome to attend his court and speak about their problems or share their experiences. Now everyone who came to his court would say, “May the king live forever” as the traditional greeting. Did I say everyone? Oops, I am sorry I forgot about Olango. He was a middle aged man who earned his living as a teacher. Whenever he appeared before the king he would say, “No King as God”.
The mighty Yaburo did not like this but tolerated Olango since he did not want to appear cruel and unjust. But gradually even his courtiers started whispering about Olango, who was now called No-king-as-God. Yaburo realized if something was not done quickly people would stop treating him with the respect and awe he had always been used to.
After a lot of thinking Yaburo thought of a plan which would enable him to eliminate Olango without any blame coming to him.
Yaburo called Olango to his court.
“Listen Olango, I am giving you something which is very special to me to keep. I have chosen you since I trust you more than anyone else. You keep it very carefully and return it to me when I ask,” - with these words Yaburo handed over a silver ring to Olango who took the ring without suspecting anything.
Olango went home and kept the ring in a dried and empty ram’s horn and gave it to his wife Baiti.
“Keep this in a safe place and tell no one about it,” he said.
Ten days later Yaburo called Olango to his court.
“Go to Dinidishu village which is to the extreme north of our kingdom. Go tell the people there that they have to come here immediately. We need their help in building the walls of our city.”
Olango did as he was told.
As soon as he had left Yaburo sent for Baiti.
“I know your husband has given you something for safekeeping. I want you to hand it over to me.”
Baiti shook her head.
“I’ll give you a million cowries,” declared the King.
Cowries are small sea-shells which were used as currency as well as ornaments by the people of Africa in those days.
Baiti was tempted by the King’s offer but she hesitated.
“My husband won’t spare me when he comes to know,” she said.
“And do you think I’ll spare you, if your refuse me, your King. You and your entire family will suffer if you don’t obey me,” Yaburo thundered.
Terrified Baiti went home and returned with the horn.
The King looked into the horn and found the ring inside. He sent Baiti off with the million cowries. After she had left he replaced the ring into the horn and asked his guards to throw it far into the biggest lake in Nigeria which never dried up. The guards obeyed his command and returned to the court.
As soon as the horn fell into the lake a big fish swallowed it up.
A few days later Olango was returning home after successfully completing his mission. He met some friends who were going fishing and joined them. He caught a big fish and went home, happy with is catch. As he was cleaning the fish his knife struck something hard. It was the ram’s horn. He pulled it out and on checking found the silver ring, which the king had given him, inside it.
“Truly,” he said, “There is no king as God.”
Just then a royal messenger came to his house and told him he was wanted by King Yaburo in his court immediately.
“Where is the ram’s horn which I had given you,” Olango asked his wife.
Baiti went around acting as if she was looking for it and then finally said, “I am sorry but I can’t find it. I think the rats must have eaten it up.”
Olango did not say anything. He was now able to gauge the King’s plan. He was quite certain that the King had either tricked or forced Baiti to give the horn and hence she was not to be blamed.
Olango set off for the royal court. When he reached there he found Yaburo hadn’t come. A few minutes later Yaburo entered. All the courtiers jumped to their feet and declared, “May the King live forever.”
But Olango quietly said, “There is no King as God.”
The King advanced towards Olango and staring straight into his eyes asked, “Is it really true that there is no King as God?”
Olango firmly replied, “Yes.”
“Okay, now give me the silver ring which I gave you,” Yaburo said his eyes blazing. He was sure he had Olango cornered. In a few minutes it would all be over. Olango would not be able to produce the silver ring and would be promptly beheaded. And that would end all this ‘no king as God’ nonsense forever. He asked his guards to surround Olango.
However King Yaburo was in for a rude shock. Olango calmly put his hands inside his robe and removing the horn gave it to the King. Yaburo upturned the horn and soon the silver ring was quietly nestling in his palm. The King stared at Olango in amazement.
For a few seconds he was unable to speak then slowly he said, “Yes, indeed there is no king like God.”
All his courtiers clapped in approval.
Later Yaburo divided his kingdom into two. One half he kept with himself and the other he gave it to Olango to rule.
Both Yaburo and Olango ruled their respective kingdoms for long with faith in God and concern for the people.
Image (c) Gettyimages.com
Just a Second
One upon a time, not very long ago, there lived a very old man. His name was Father Time. He had seven sons. There names were Year, Month, Week, Day, Hour, Minute and Second.
Year was the oldest and the laziest. Second was the youngest and the smartest. Year always lazed around doing nothing. Second was a real busy bee, running around doing some job or the other.
Second went around collecting iron coins every moment. When he had collected 60, he converted these to a steel coin which he presented to his brother, Minute. Minute then went about his job of collecting steel coins. When he had collected 60, he converted these to a bronze one and gave it to his brother, Hour.
Hour collected his share of 24 bronze coins, changed them into a silver coin and gave them to his elder brother, Day. Day then went around collecting silver coins and when he had collected seven, he changed these to a gold coin which he gave to his brother, Week. Week was a bit weak. He collected four gold coins and converted them into a diamond coin.
This diamond coin he gave to his brother, Month. Month collected 12 diamond coins which he converted to a beautiful nugget. This nugget he presented to his brother, year. Year made a small crown out of that nugget and placed it on his own head. And so the seven brothers kept themselves busy.
Even though second was the smartest and the most hard-working he never received any respect from anyone. He was always taken for granted. No one bothered about him. Year, being the eldest, received much more respect than he deserved. Ever time he went by, people celebrated with parties and get-togethers. His coming and going were occasions for fun and festivity. Cakes were cut, candles were lit and people danced the whole night singing happy birthday, happy anniversary or happy new year. Poor second came and went unnoticed and unheralded. This made him very sad and depressed.
One day, he thought he would teach everyone a lesson. One bright summer morning, second went into hiding. No one except Father Time knew where he was. With no input from Second, Minute had to stop working. With Minute lying idle, Hour, Day, Week and Month were also rendered jobless. As a result, year also had to sit idle twiddling his thumbs. As soon as second disappeared, everything came to a standstill. The clocks stopped, factories, offices, planes, trains, buses, everything was brought to a grinding halt. There was chaos all around. People started panicking.
Finally, a delegation went to Father Time and pleaded with him to persuade second to come out of hiding. Father Time said, “Listen friends, it is all your fault. You have never valued my little son, Second. Even though he is the most hard-working and the most intelligent, you have never treated him with respect. You have failed to realise his worth. You have always wasted his contribution, never bothering to cherish and value his efforts. Remember, it is the Second alone which makes the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks, the months, the years and finally a lifetime. A person who realises this, succeeds in life. One who doesn’t, ends up wasting his time and his life.”
The leader of the delegation was a smart, young man called Opportunity. He said, “Father Time, we are very sorry. We have realised our mistake. We will never again hurt Second’s feelings. We will always respect him and cherish and value his contribution.”
Father Time clapped his hands seven times and little Second appeared. He was greeted with love and affection by everyone. As soon as he appeared, everything began to move. The clocks started ticking; the factories and offices started working; the planes, the trains, the buses, everything was in motion.
Since that day, everyone has treated Second with love and respect. And he has lived happily with his six brothers and his Father Time.
Image (c) gettyimages.com