No Home for Children

Who would kill a seven-year-old for being too… innocent?

The child lying dead in the middle of the room, with his swathed head looking like an overgrown cabbage, continued to attract men, women, tears and snot through the evening.

Outside on the stoop, as the man was stammering his question to me, ‘How did my child die?’, the mother swooned down behind, unable to handle her grief. A couple of greying ladies together with the fat cook of my school struggled and carried her away. Though the question was anticipated, I still had not figured out how I was to reply.

We were seven students in the school and he was the youngest of us. For some reason, I had nicknamed the boy Mandu and it stuck. When his father enrolled him into the school six months before, I was called downstairs to take him into my care. He needn’t necessarily have joined the Paatashala – some Brahmin’s decaying house converted into a school for learning Hindu scriptures – for I have heard his father was a prospering trader in Madras with the capacity to afford an English education. Maybe Mandu was summoned by his fate.

While it was the sepia of early 1940s outside our village, the conditions remained completely black-and-white for us inside. Only countably few houses boasted Philips tubelights and the rest rendered themselves recognisable with kerosene lamps. For this reason, we students would assemble in the hall for the rationed dinner by 6 pm sharp, holding our plates and tumblers.

Mandu was a silent, harmless boy, giving strangers the impression that he was both deaf and dumb. But during school hours, when it came to listening to our teacher recite verses off his old bound book and repeating them, Mandu, with his shallow voice of prepuberty, enunciated flawlessly and often achieved the rare feat of impressing our teacher.

Mandu, literally following his father’s last words to him, stuck beside me at all times.

He reached my waist when we lined up for our meals, was plump all over the body, and had his lips pulled inward most of the time. Any question outside his purview of awareness made him pause and blink; not that he was particularly quick at other times.

Now the sun appeared to sink behind the grove across the lane and I felt habitually hungry. I still had not replied to the father, and as if he understood my situation, he didn’t bother to stop sobbing and ask me a second time.

My mind flew to the stout pillars of stone that guarded the entrance of her house. And the callus hand that had shoved Mandu’s little face against one of these pillars. I knew he had died immediately, or perhaps even a moment before in fear of striking the hard, rough surface.

‘What can I tell? He – he was pushed against a rock pillar.’

My diction shook the father’s body.

My teacher stepped down to his side and lowered him onto the pyol.

‘He is our only child… I can’t bring myself to accept he is no more.’ He lifted his eyes to me, ‘Tell me, son. Who did this to my child?’

It had all been fine until she stepped into our village and came to reside in the house at the end of this lane, holding in her hands that big brown box and a worn trunk. She could not have been more than twenty-five. I was not sure what made her topic so ripe to the villagers – whether it was her beauty that she unconsciously, openly carried about her, very unlike the conservative, obedient women we were used to seeing, or it was that layer of mystery that shrouded her background and made her independence further questionable.

rodolfo_amoedo_-_dorso_de_mulher_02

Painting of Rodolfo Amoedo

We had all seen her coming alone in a horse-driven cart. Even the bachelors in the lane had hesitated to help her carry her belongings into the house. After a hopeful short wait, she had flung the loose end of her sari over her shoulder and carried them all in one by one, in the process shamelessly swaying her hips and entertaining the husbands standing behind their stunned wives.

From that moment, in the market, by the well, during performances of the touring troupe, and wherever people rubbed shoulders, the men – young, old and very old – always sought to know where Amaravati came from, if she was married and how she lived alone in that huge house; while the women focussed on the more cosmetic aspects like how she was the way she was.

However, the most fantastic and interesting angle to the story was the purported sounding of a male voice in her house. Vinayagam Pillai, a landlord living directly opposite her house, indeed a curious neighbour to have, shared with all who cared to listen, which was essentially everybody, that he would occasionally hear a strong male voice, especially late in the evening and early in the morning, speaking to Amaravati in Hindi or English.

I have heard the wife of Rangachari gossiping with my teacher’s wife that she once spoke with Amaravati over their party wall, and in the course of their brief conversation had come to know that she was a married woman and that her husband had proved to be so indispensable to the British Raj that they kept him tucked in Delhi. It didn’t sound very credible, but it lent credibility to Vinayagam Pillai’s inference that Amaravati was now and then visited by an outsider who did not stay longer than a night.

Since I had formerly completed my education at the Paatashala, I went with my teacher as his acolyte to most of the rituals and religious gatherings he was called to and therefore became the unintended recipient of all these rumours and facts. I used to come back and share these with the other students, who, all on the cusp of adulthood, except Mandu, would drink every word of mine with an increasing eagerness and wicked smiles.

Mandu, on the other hand, would attentively listen to me with open mouth and tilted head, as if preparing to recite all I had said. We boys might also, now and then, in his silent presence, discuss the vague prospect of venturing near her house in the night – a self-declared taboo even for the grown-ups in the village. Once it was flippantly commented that it would be appropriate to send Mandu, as our emissary, near Amaravati’s house; after all who would take him seriously. However, during all those instants, I had never wondered what Mandu must have been thinking.

‘Yesterday evening we heard in passing that the man who regularly visited her had come.’ I could see Vinayagam Pillai solemnly nod from the corner he was standing in. ‘We did not think it was anyhow important to us students and so went to dinner, and upstairs after that. Only when Man – only when Maadhu was missing in the dormitory, did I get the feeling that maybe he had become too interested he couldn’t resist strolling down to the end of the lane.’

A shriek of anguish from one of the inner rooms terrified us all. My teacher sent his wife to be with the mother. A couple of doors were closed to muffle her cry; even still she succeeded.

The father straightened and looked up at me, which only made my telling harder.

‘I stepped out to bring Maadhu back. On the way, I was wondering how silly it was of him to go near her house, and what would our teacher do if he ever found out.

‘The lane was so empty and silent at that time that I could hear the voice of the man in Amaravati’s house, shouting in a different language, even at a few feet from this place. As I went closer, the door to her house seemed to open, and immediately, in the white light from inside, I could see a tall man pulling Mandu out of the house by his ear. I was shocked! Someone who has only been spoken of, never seen, was right before my eyes, and in his uncaring hands was Mandu weeping. I tried to run, but by the time I reached them, the man had pushed Mandu, who hit the pillar before falling on the ground at my feet.

‘Amaravati then locked the door and went away with the man and her few belongings.’

A couple of villagers, including the Panchayat Head, nodded their complement to my narration.

*

I must admit, at least to myself, that I had not been truthful to a grieving father.

I had been waiting for a long time to complete my formal education and escape the fetters of this village; to go to the town of Trichinopoly and find myself a footing in better conditions. I had realised long before that studying these purposeless scriptures was itself a sacrifice extracted out of me by my poor parents. And in addition, all the domestic jobs asked of me by my teacher, his wife and the school were torturous to my unwilling character. My palms were senseless, dead skin now.

So, when Amaravati entered our village, it was a fresh breeze of change to me. Sneaking around the drolls of the village and hearing them talk of her showed me the thrill of what men expected out of women, and on all Sundays, being accidentally present at Amaravati’s backyard exactly during her bathing ritual furnished me with unseen fantasies to occupy my lone time.

I obsessed over that woman. And one midnight, actually one of last week’s, I didn’t know how, but I was inspired to walk into her bedroom.

I had marked an opening in the hedge bordering her backyard. Once through it, I crossed the washing stone, the vestibule and entered the main hall. There was a soft voice of a man coming from one of the inner rooms on my left. It was a monotone. For a moment I considered withdrawing myself, but I ended up nervously inching in the room’s direction. Curiosity proved to be a swirling vortex, pulling into its scheme the weak.

As I pushed open the door in degrees, the man’s voice raised in decibels. Along with it, now I could hear feminine gasps, rendered more distinctly by every degree.

Amaravati was on her back, fully naked, with a pillow between her thighs, and her neck stretched backward on the bed. There was unexpectedly no man in the house, and the voice seemed to come from the brown box Amaravati had carried with her when she rode into our lives.

I could not definitely conclude which amazed me more – a naked woman engaged selflessly in a strange action, or the wonder of the brown box, with perforations, that spoke like a man. One was an answer to my nocturnal question, another was a question by itself.

It took me some time to see that Amaravati had stopped her engagement and was now staring into me. She invited me by a gesture of her head, which was mostly veiled by her long black hair. As I lumbered towards her with pacing heart, she moved her fingers over the box on the bedside table and touched somewhere – the voice was gone! Without turning her head in my direction, with her other hand, she pulled me into her bed.

The rest was like a half-remembered dream. I felt giddy throughout the process, but my body parts were conscious of what they were doing, or rather, all that they were guided to do. More than being a boon of vision to a blind, that night churned out very visceral experiences for me; an educational tour of my own body and its deep inner cravings.

When I exited her house, not at all wanting to, Mandu was lying crumpled on the pyol of a hut situated across the lane running behind her backyard. I sighed.

He must have heard the disturbance in the hedge, for he immediately jerked and lifted his sleepy head. Noticing I had finally come out, he jumped down carefully, clutched my upper cloth and followed me to our school. He never asked me anything about that night.

During the intervening four or five days my mind revolved around that one night – fighting hard against itself to recollect our efforts on bed, the ensuing pleasure that flowed out of me and the sound that gargled out from her stretched throat – but I could not retrieve much. I even started from school a couple of times to visit her (this time I took with me a small towel hidden in the fold of my dhoti), around the same hour, but one thing or the other prevented me from reaching her house. Twice it was Mandu holding onto me tightly in his sleep, threatening to wake up whenever I tried to release his clasp, and once it was a group of youngsters having a whispery meeting outside one of the houses on the lane.

Yesterday evening, Rangachari’s wife jogged to my school with her flabby figure bouncing within a nine-yards. She caught hold of my teacher’s wife and whispered loudly, ‘Amaravati is packing her house. She’s leaving tonight.’

I didn’t know what to make of it. Was I the reason for her sudden departure?

‘I don’t know,’ Rangachari’s wife scowled. ‘Must be because her story has begun to stink all over the village and it dawned upon her to quickly leave the place.’ Her tone was already wistful.

I waited with bated breath for the evening to sail past. After a half-eaten dinner and handing over Mandu to the charge of another student, I walked stealthily towards her house, taking precaution not to attract any attention in that silent space.

When I entered her house from behind she was already out on the front steps, meddling with the iron lock on the door. Hearing my footsteps, she paused and pushed the door open. Her oval face turned into an exclamation.

Amaravati rushed to the hall where I was standing and enquired why I had come there at that time. Even the tone of her question ragged my sincerity. And only then I myself understood that I was there on no purpose. I could not, after all, bluntly request an encore, although deep down that was what took me there. I stood numbed by her question.

I heard her repeating the question. A minute would have easily passed. Finally, she moved her body from the path between me and the front door and indicated the exit with her hand. What else could I have done? I walked out, down the steps and stopped on the lane. Amaravati turned a key in the lock, slipped it between her waist and the fold of her sari, and jumped into the waiting cart.

The big brown box that spoke like a man was behind the driver.

Very surprisingly, her walkout had no audience. All windows and doors on the lane remained shut, as if glancing at the wanton was itself a sacrilege.

In the wake of the cart, as the awoken dust fumed and settled, my eyes caught sight of Mandu sleepily standing across the lane. This boy!

He approached me as if nothing had happened, extended his arm and tugged at my upper cloth. I was so out of my mind, so confused, that I nudged him lightly. Who would have supposed it might kill the boy?

Like a thought from the past, wafted to my ears, the voice of the man from inside the big brown box.

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Kalachakra

Prologue:

This is interesting. Engaging. I often find myself musing over this incident; or rather I should say series of incidents, which has managed to weigh upon and occupy my mind many a time in the recent past – much to the annoyance and disappointment of my dear wife who is always devoted to me and engaged in my thoughts. I don’t blame her. I do find it increasingly strange that something so trivial and unimportant amongst other events of the big picture is continuing to fill my mind with deep thoughts. Sometimes, however, I find it anything but trivial; as an event very essential to my study of the big process.

Since the instance I conceptualised the idea of time and let it flow through the four undulating plains– namely the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga and the Kali Yuga – the Lokas all have seen remarkable and noteworthy changes; especially the Bhuvar or the Madhya Loka that I take special interest in. This may partly be because even the very people born out of my Srishti are becoming progressively more unpredictable. The previous universe created by my associate, Brahma – bless his patience – in his Padma Kalpa, was what that saw the remarkable incident I am now thinking about. It was an incident that ran for two cycles of time and had repercussions that would drop the jaw of a mortal. My over-thinking mind has now digressed unnecessarily to the lesson I taught my staunch friend Hanuman (and will continue to teach for cycles of time to come) regarding the concept of time running in a circle – how as King Ram I had asked (and will ask) him to go search for a ring purposely lost in the deep recesses of my palace, leading him to find a mountain heap of rings in the underground Nagaloka, and making him understand that it has been happening in all the cycles of time and that it will continue to happen for cycles to come. Whatsoever, let me now muse over this particular series of events while Lakshmi is away – for just one last time, I tell myself.  

 

The past:

Bookstore, Meerut district                                                                    Sep 15, 2015 (of the Kali Yuga)

I was answering the questions posed by small-time journalists and general readers when the cardboard box was carried to the table before me. It was a rectangular box with a poster of my Hindi translated version of The Krishna Key novel, released two years back, stuck on one of its sides. I didn’t know what was so captivating about it that my eyes only rarely turned from it. I did love my work in that; the Mahabharata tale unfolding in the beginning of all the chapters, and my own story written for the novel following it. But that wasn’t the reason for my attention towards it now. The box was in no way peculiar looking, and it presumably had only stacks of my novel in the Hindi language. But why did I feel a sign of presentiment?

The manager of the bookstore – a sexagenarian – came and whispered in my ear that I was to distribute the novels in the box to the five children occupying the last row of seating. I shot a glance at them. They seemed underprivileged to me, and thus suddenly the manager looked like a caring and magnanimous old human. But these tender feelings did not replace the presentiment I had formed. They only exacerbated it.

The questions all answered and new books signed, the audience brought their hands together for a minute and rose to leave. Only one or two photographers remained to cover the book distribution event that they had obviously been priorly informed of. When the first of the five children (all in ragged clothes) approached my table for receiving the books, and when the manager of the bookstore approached the sealed box with a knife in his hand, the earth shook and all hell broke loose. It seemed as if Pandora’s Box had been opened with all fury. The floor beneath my feet trembled and I fell down after colliding with the chair I had been sitting on. Blood trickled out of my elbow where I had hit the metallic edge of a placard stand flaunting the text ‘Ashwin Sanghi Speaks’ in burning red. I could see the children all panicking and some even crying. The vibration lasted for a whole minute and the earth just before the table in front of me opened wide. I felt a chill run down my spine and instinctively backed against the wall behind me. I couldn’t see the old man anywhere. I rushed to the aid of a poor child about to fall into the wide crack of the floor when I tripped the cardboard box unintentionally. It fell into the dark abyss of the wide crack. I saved the child.

 

The present:

Kingdom of Hastinapura                                                             3139 B.C. (in the next cycle of time)

It was serious. Serious and important. A Kurukshetra war! Destruction of the kauravas! Death of millions of Kshatriya warriors! It was difficult to digest it all in. How could I have believed this… this thing? No one had given it to me. I had obtained it while tilling my agricultural land. A worn out box with many such things. The leaves of all the things were ruined except those of this one copy. Strangely the language of the leaves was also familiar. The first portion of all new sections had the story of what had happened in this kingdom and an account of the events supposedly yet to happen – that which I was not able to believe. The other story was, however, very absurd. About someone called Saini running from people throughout the story. It seemed very baffling with many of the terms looking incomprehensible. I had a feeling this story didn’t matter.

Upon thorough examination, after taking heaps of notes while translating the familiar looking language into my own tongue, and much extrapolation it did look true; very much believable. ‘What should I do? Must I alert the Pandavas, who have just returned from thirteen years of exile and are getting ready for talks with the Maharaja and his son Duryodhana regarding the split up of the Hastinapura throne? No, that is useless. They are only about to ask for what is their rightful share,’ I pondered aloud.

‘No. I must talk to Duryodhana. I must convince him to part with a portion of the kingdom to the Pandavas as promised by him before sending them on the exile. But would he listen to me? I can’t be sure. But I must try my best. A war must be averted at all costs.’

——x——

Duryodhana’s chambers                                                                                              The same evening

‘What are you saying, O Vaishya?’ exclaimed Duryodhana when I had reported to him everything – right from how I had stumbled upon the box while tilling my land to all my interpretations of the text and the imminent danger it posed.

‘I mean it, O Valiant Prince! Every word of what I have just said,’ I said, silently praying he would agree to my suggestion.

‘O Vaishya! Even my prime minister is not allowed to counsel me concerning matters of ruling the kingdom. But I have given you that authority; why? Because I regard you highly. I regard you as the foremost among the Mahuri Vaishya clan of my kingdom. O Great Ekghara of the Chandra Muni Ghotra, I know you to be a brilliant strategist and a wise human. But what you are saying now is insane. You say the Pandavas will declare war through Krishna? And that they would win it? And all this you found in that soiled thing you are holding? Absolutely ridiculous!’ His belly shook in his gale of laughter.

I then quoted many incidents from the text, like the Lakshagraha or the wax palace incident, the game of dice and many more, but he shook his head at all of them saying the text might have been composed after the incidents had happened. He simply refused to believe me.

——x——

The king’s court                                                                                                                        The next day

I was summoned to the court of the king. Anxiously I reached the main hall of the court and faced the throne where the blind king was seated. Duryodhana came running to me. ‘Maybe he lost his mind again?’ I expected the worst. But he came to me and shook me by my shoulders, sporting a panoramic smile.

‘O Vaishya! Your words proved worthy yet again. Yesterday evening, after you had left, Krishna – that Yadava – paid us a visit. He said the Pandavas demanded a fair portion of the kingdom after having ended their exile, and when I refused and even humiliated him, he said they would wage war, just as you mentioned he would say. On deeper reflection, I have decided to pay heed to your advice. O Vaishya of the Ekghara family, I have decided to part with my kingdom and avert the possibility of a war. I am going to send a message of consent to that Yadava. After all, didn’t I give my word?’

 

 

The future:

Odyssey bookstore, Navi Mumbai                              2012 AD (of Kali Yuga, the same cycle)

‘No, the entire story line of Lord Krishna, which appears episodically, is not true. It is historically correct only till a certain point in the book,’ I answered the reporter’s question. I was launching my book The Krishna Key here. I continued, ‘In fact after that point in the story everything that comes as Krishna’s story is fictionalised. I took the liberty to do so as I felt the original story was dull. Imagine this yourself. The Pandavas have just returned from exile and not honouring his word, Duryodhana is even ready to jump into a battle when suddenly a Vaishya comes into the picture and prevents the war. I felt my book, a work of art, should need some dramatic conflict.’

‘Yes, I had to be extremely cautious in dealing with this topic as we put a premium on personal belief and faith, but it was a necessary risk. I thus changed the course of events and put a war into the picture. In the end, I dutifully made the Pandavas win. And by the way, I call this war The Mahabharata.’

 

Epilogue:

Thus I have recapitulated all that had happened a million years ago. After recapitulating I would often think if I had my hand in the entirety of the event. Today is no exception. Did I have a hand in what had happened? Did I purposely make the box fall through temporal dimensions and conveniently ruin all but one copy – so that the clever Vaishya could decode the text and prevent a destructive war? I don’t know. I don’t want to find the answer. Let my devotees be under the impression I am omniscient.

I remember being cursed by Gandhari, the mother of the Kauravas, for not preventing the war and thus the death of her dear sons when I possibly could have. I had gladly accepted he curse, saying ‘Tathastu’. Let Gandhari live long with her sons at least in that particular cycle of time, wherein Ashwin Sanghi and the Ekghara Vaishya (who was none but Sanghi himself in a different birth) had unknowingly conspired across generations to prevent the Great War. Let Veda Vyasa and my nephew be relieved of the effort of writing the epic. Let Mahabharata, a book that would have been roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or about four times the length of the Ramayana, go unwritten. At least in that cycle of time.  

Now, as I can see Lakshmi, my loving consort, approaching Vaikunta, I will stop musing over this incident lest I should annoy her. I will settle on to the fact that it is indeed a trivia in the grand scheme of things.

The earth continues to revolve.