Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Ammu


We were a handful. Mud-laden our feet and hands, we would play under the gray skies till our parents would shout from the mound in anger and ask us to return to home. There was something about the way the earth smelled then. It just won't let us leave the fields. Though Ammu would shriek at the sight of an earthworm,

"SNAKE!"

And Paltu would pick it up and thrust it in her horrified face, I would hate this bit, but we would still continue playing in the fields.

Ammu was buck-toothed. She had unhealthy, lice-ridden brownish hair. Dark and skinny she looked unclean even after a bath. Often, Uncle & Aunt joked that she wasn't their daughter. A chamaar was about to throw her on a garbage heap when they took pity on her and bought her for five paise. Ammu's big innocent eyes behind the specs would well up with tears. Her voice choked she would not know what to say. Then one of the ladies of the house would take pity on her and hug her.

"No Sweetheart! You are our daughter! These are all lies to tease you up. These are evil people. Do not listen to them!"

A smile would immediately break upon her face.

She wasn't the eldest among we cousins though she was the eldest girl. Paltu was the eldest. He had his skinny legs dangling out of his unfitting pair of shorts. Rains always brought in hordes of those yucky open sores on his skin. He constantly had his nose dripping. Grayish mucus just peeping out of his nostrils and would often be scolded for this. Paltu was funny. He was a joker. He would contort his body in unusual ways and had a talent of speaking in a nasal voice. His jokes were silly but the way he told them to us; it was so funny that we would laugh till our stomachs would hurt. But Cheenu was too young to understand our jokes. He was four. So he would just imitate us laugh.

All four of us would normally meet once a year for summer vacations. The end of the summer vacation would see rains coming in and the last couple of weeks of our vacation were one mud-filled adventure. We would chase frogs. I was very afraid of them. But it was fun aiming at them and hitting them with little stones. Then we had these helicopter like insects flying all around. Initially, we were very afraid but Paltu showed us that there was nothing to be afraid of them. They were not like those horrible yellow wasps that stung hard. Then it became fun to hold these tiny things from their tails and see them attempt hard to fly-off. Their wings buzzing hard. We would catch them and then drown them in the pond water. But the best were jugnus. They would just lit up the whole hedge near the pond in the night. We would go catching them. And then put them in a glass jar and then compare as to whose jar lit most. It was a sight to see four sparkling jars in the pitch darkness of the night. But we often got beating from our parents for this adventure.

"Idiots! One day one of these will get bitten by a snake and that will be the end of all their adventures!"

*****

Adjoining our house lived our family cousins. They were two brothers – Dulaare & Pyaare. One was 15 and the other 14 respectively. Our lives were knotted together. Though we would hate them but somehow we could never break free from their hold. It was very frustrating at times. However hard we tried we only found ourselves held firmer in their grip.

Toilet and bathroom were two separate entities in villages. Bathrooms were normally a space cordoned off by a mud wall at the edge of a courtyard – the corner where the kitchen garden will be. Though, it was a kitchen garden but one seldom grew anything there. It only had wild bushes, weed and few odd trees. A perfect hideout for us. Toilets were normally shacks away from the house towards the fields.

Once we were playing some ball game. And the ball landed in Dulaare & Pyaare’s back garden. Paltu went to fetch it but he heard their sister taking a bath. She was 16. He became curious. He started scaling the walls to peep in. However, Dulaare caught him. Both the brothers dragged him out to the fields. Intimidated him, beat him, threatened him. Paltu was terrified. He was afraid of the beating he would get if people at home get to know. Paltu begged them to leave him. Both brothers smiled at each other. Finally they had this worm under their thumb.

“All right! We will! Only if you agree to follow everything that we say from today!”

Paltu didn’t have a choice. He gave in. And thus began his tale of woes.

Once Grandpa was taking his afternoon nap. Dulaare sneaked in and poured some water in his fancy plastic jootis (shoes). When he got up and slid his feet in his shoes he was surprised. The shoes squelched.

“WATER! WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?”

It was a scorching June afternoon. He was bemused.

“It hasn’t even rained!”

Then Pyaare meekly uttered.

“I saw Paltu going past your bed with a lota brimming with water.”

“WHAT?”

That was it. Paltu thrashing time. Then once while Grandpa was sleeping Pyaare came and tied his foot to the bedpost. Such similar mischief continued and Paltu always had to take this blame. We all knew he was innocent but we didn’t dare speak against the two brothers.

They didn’t even spare Ammu. They would make her work like a servant. They would order her to make tea or fetch water for them. And Ammu would quietly do what was told to her. Once while she was sleeping the two brothers collected a handful of cockroaches and released them in her hair. She felt something crawling on her face and woke up shrieking. It was a sight seeing Ammu run around the courtyard, her head moving violently trying to shake off all the cockroaches. When Ammu’s mother took this us with Dulaare & Pyaare’s mother – an ugly screeching woman – she retorted,

Mere rajkumaaron ko kuch mat kaho! Unhone kuch nahin kya! Paltu ki harkat hogi! Wahi yeah sab karta hai!”

And given how Paltu used to thrust earthworms in Ammu’s face, it was very plausible. Paltu thrashing time again.

*****

But there were times when peace reigned in. We would all sleep outside in the courtyard next to Grandpa and he would regale us with fancy tales. These tales took us to lands and times we could only imagine.

So, on one such similar night we were pestering Grandpa for a tale. We’ve had a hard day. Paltu was again victim to our cousins’ wily pranks. We’ve had people shouting all over the place – people shouting within home, people shouting across homes. Acrimony. We were all tired. And perhaps wanted to escape the day. We were pestering Grandpa for a tale.

“Please Dada! Please!”

Even Dulaare and Pyaare joined the chorus.

Dada smiled, “Ok! The here it is!”

“Once upon a time, when our world was very different, only the birds lived here. Once they were summoned by the great bird-god, the Simurgh. He sent his special messenger the hoopoe to the birds. Simurgh lived at this legendary circular mountain, Qaf, circling the earth.

It was an honor to be summoned by Simurgh himself but the journey was filled with dangers. There were chasms and forest of fires, where flames went up to the sky, to cross. Then there was the Dead Sea. It was a desert of salt stretching till eternity. No bird could fly across it. And even if they managed the thirst would kill them. Finally, there were these monster birds – flying reptiles – that looked out for soft fleshy birds to feed upon.

Most birds on hearing the invitation chickened out. They spoke of prior engagements and being busy. They were petrified of undertaking such a journey. Hoopoe was disappointed.

“Well! I didn’t know Simurgh had such cowardly followers! I thought everyone would be willing to go!”

The birds bowed their heads in shame. The chief bird looked hard at the assembled crowd.

“It’s a matter of shame. Will we let down The Great Simurgh? If none would go then I would go alone!”

On hearing this some courageous birds step forward.

“Chief we would go with you!”

Finally, 30 birds embarked on this perilous journey. They encountered all the dangers they had heard of but they were prepared. They flew hard almost till their strength gave away. But they flew.

However, when they reached Qaf they found nothing. There was no Simurgh. It was just a desolate mountaintop. No God, no fancy palatial mansion, no breathtaking scenes. They were disappointed. They turned towards hoopoe and asked,
“Where is The Great Simurgh? There is nothing here? Did we undertake this perilous journey for nothing?”

Hoopoe smiled.

“You are The Simurgh!”

The birds were confused. They looked at him befuddled.

“Simurgh! Means ‘Si’ – thirty – and ‘Murgh’ – birds! By undertaking this dangerous journey and overcoming the obstacles you’ve become what you came looking for! You are The God that you sought!”

We were enchanted by this tale. Our eyes lit up. Something inside got triggered that night and we slept with smiles on our faces.
*****

A few weeks later a story started doing the rounds that there was a ghost in the mango orchard. Few people had seen a white apparition glide through the orchard late in the night and when someone approaches the orchard it vanishes. Everyone was excited about this ghost business.

One afternoon while we were playing pithoo, Paltu aimed the ball at Pyaare and it hit him hard. He took offence and caught him by the scruff.

Kechue! Saale! Just because this is a game you think you can hit hard!”

Arre! I don’t need to hit you under a game’s pretext!”

Chup be! Kutta zabaan ladaata hai!

Main nahin darta kisi se!

Dulaare hits Paltu hard against his face. We could see blood drop at the corner of his lips.

Itna hi bahadur hai to raat mein Aam ke Baagh mein jaake dikhla!

Haan! Wahan bhi jaa sakta hoon!

And they both burst out laughing.

Geedad! Saala! Kahta hai wahan jaa sakta hai!

We all just stood mute as Paltu held on to his bravado.

Theekh hai Kechue! Aaj raat dekhte hain tu kitna bahadur hai!

And thus our fate was sealed.

We spent the whole evening discussing how will we do it. We decided to leave Cheenu out of this. At night when every one will be asleep we’ll take three sticks and two lanterns and walk down the mound towards the mango orchard. The plan was that first we’ll hid the lanterns behind the bushes and just watch the orchard from the mound. Once, we spot the ghost Paltu with a lantern and a stick in his hand walk towards the orchard while we will stand on the mound and watch. If anything untoward happens, we will shout. The ghost perhaps may get scared and run away.

At night we made sure everyone was asleep and sneaked towards the edge of the mountain. The air had a nip. The faint aroma of a freshly washed earth was in our nostrils. We were nervous. We held each other’s hands and moved forward. Our senses were heightened and even the wind rustling would make us alert. We slowly reached the edge of the mound. Our lantern flickering at bare minimum. We kept them behind the bushes, huddled and kept staring at the orchard.

Suddenly, we saw something white moving within the trees. Ammu almost screamed but Paltu covered her mouth. I was shaking. I clasped tight Paltu’s arm. Paltu stood up like a warrior. His hair blowing in the wind with a lantern in one hand and the stick in the other. He was nervous too. His legs were shaking. But he hid his nervousness and instructed,

“Stay here! And if you see something unusual – SCREAM!”

We sat there holding each other tightly as we saw Paltu walk nervously towards the orchard. Finally, Paltu was at the edge of the orchard. The flickering light from his lantern rooted at a spot. Then the light moved again. Now the light would appear intermittently as Paltu walked amidst the trees. Suddenly, we saw something white stealthily creep up towards the light. And then…

We sat trembling. The flickering light titled and then burst brighter. We saw Paltu entangled with a figure. Ammu was transfixed. She forgot to scream. I stood there watching nervously. A heap of dry leaves caught the flame from the lantern. We could see now. Paltu had pulled the sheet off the figure.

“WHAT? DULAARE IS THE GHOST!”

I shook Ammu.

“AMMU! DULAARE IS THE GHOST! THEY ARE BEATING PALTU! DO SOMETHING! FAST!”

Ammu broke out of her daze.

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

“DULAARE IS THE GHOST! THEY ARE BEATING HIM UP!”

By now Pyaare has stepped out of the shadows and they were beating Paltu with his stick only. One brother was kicking him while the other was thrashing him with the stick. Paltu was valiantly fighting them. But he was losing. He looked towards us and shouted,

“AMMU! SCREAM AMMU SCREAM! HELP!”

And then Ammu yelled. Her voice piercing the dark night.

“BROTHER! FIGHT BROTHER FIGHT! I AM COMING!”

Ammu picked up her stick and ran towards the orchard. Ammu’s war cry startled the two brothers. For a minute they stopped beating Paltu and looked towards us. Ammu, brandishing her stick, was running down the mound towards them.

“FIGHT BROTHER FIGHT! I AM COMING!”

They both were bemused. Paltu took advantage of this and hit one of the brothers in his crotch. He went rolling on to the ground. Before the other brother could react Ammu had reached there. She swung her stick and hit him on his head. He staggered. By now Paltu kicked him and he too was reeling on the ground. Paltu was kicking one brother while Ammu thrashed the other with the stick. They were writhing in pain.

By now people had started stirring. They’ve heard our screaming. I was still standing at the edge as everyone came running towards me and saw the spectacular scene of Paltu and Ammu thrashing the two brothers.

They were amazed to hear that Dulaare was the ghost and both brothers have been stealing mangoes from the orchards. They rushed towards the orchards.

Grandpa stood next to me. He put his hand on my shoulders, smiled and said,

“So, you’ve finally stepped across the line in your mind! In the effort to find the ghost, you’ve found yourself!”

I looked up and smiled back.

© Dan Husain
September 26, 2005

14 comments:

Shankari said...

Hi Dan!

What a detailed delightful narrative. But I thought this should have been titled Simurgh not Ammu! That story in a story was awesome.

Rita said...

Dan, I really liked the story. Took me to my childhood when I used to go to my grandfather's house during vaccations and and have a ball with my cousins. :D

Keep writing!

anu said...

Dan you write so well. So nicely you have painted the picture, i could almost visualise it.

Thank you so much :)

Wish you a Happy New Year 2006.

Accidental Fame Junkie said...

I loved the story! But the icing on the cake were Grampa's words! But should "Ammu" have been the title of the story?

Nothings aplenty said...

Story within a story...interesting style. i like how the narration keeps shifting..as though its not satisfied with any one character.
Happy New Year to you :)
Will look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

Dan you've done a wonderful job...childhood is an amazing period of life....i wish we could go back in time.The burden of growing up is too much at times!!!

Sue hardy-Dawson said...

Yet another beautiful story, interwoven with cultural heratage, it took me through many emotions Happy New Year

Aditi Das Patnaik said...

Hey this was nice reading! :)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. What a word picture and a very 'live', gripping narration. Was transported to Ammu's world while reading the story.
And Ofcourse the theme makes one very nostalgic. Makes a lovely read. Enjoyed it thoroughly.

Nothings aplenty said...

hey...i've tagged you. come chk out my blog to see the details.

Shilpa said...

Loved it:) but it's time for an update to your blog!

Blue Athena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Wonderful story..with a moral and all to boot.
Loved it!

Twilight Fairy said...

hi,
Read about your plays in the caferati mailing list, but the attachment never reached us. Could you tell me about the details of time, date, venue, cost of tickets etc?

Cheers!

PS. You can leave a comment here.