Two novellas by V.J.James : Laika and One-Legged Crow.
Few excerpts from these stunning novellas…(in translation). Hope they spread their sweetness across the world.
When the year 1957-58 was declared as the International Geophysical Year, both Russia and America, without each other’s knowledge, had started working on artificial satellites. Both parties spared no effort in spying on each other too. Yet, Russian space successes were always one step ahead of the game. It caused a grave injury to American pride that we succeeded in launching Sputnik, while US failed in putting in space a satellite weighing 2 kilograms. It was this defeat of the hitherto frontliner which motivated USA to establish NASA in 1958.
In the next decade, both the countries together contributed in sending almost 5000 artificial satellites to circle the earth. The credit of the first human in space in 1961 went to Russia while America conquered the moon in 1969- all a direct result of the invisible space race. It was during the early stages of the space feud, which extended for years on end, that Laika the pup arrived; with the historic assignment of being the first link in the space journey, and I ended up narrating her tale to Priyanka.
Though named Laika, the nomenclature was not referring a lone canine. Laika was the common name for the breed of hunting dogs in Northern forests of Russia and Scandinavian countries. Alsatian, Pomeranian, Daschund…like these divisions, we too named the pup after a specific breed. From among the mongrels caught from Moscow’s streets, after ‘interviewing’ many, did we choose Laika as the space traveller. Her kind was adept in hunting down small creatures and birds like squirrels and partridges. Howling wildly to indicate the presence of bigger animals, they were great enthusiasts in chasing and tiring out the preys, along with the owners. Though petite in appearance, their capacity to bark fiercely was legendary. That was why the breed got the name of ‘the one who barks’. They were very faithful and loving by nature. Besides, fitting her in the payload compartment was easy, considering her small size.
We Russians have a great liking for dogs. Most citizens consider owning high pedigree canines as a status symbol. The dogs are granted prominent positions within a household. Not only inside homes, but dogs have been companions in Russia’s scientific experiments also. It was because its blood circulatory system and respiratory mechanism were similar to that of a human being, that a dog was chosen as the first space traveler. Although, considering the resilience and fortitude to overcome extreme cold and hunger, many street dogs were trapped and some canines were purchased from owners, the cast lots was in favour of Laika, due to her light weight, obedience and her non-ambivalence towards the special space food.
Irrespective of all the tricks up their sleeves, four adroit dog catchers could not snare this super smart little pup. She eluded their ruses many times. The catchers became provoked and determined to snag her in their nets by all means. By the time she was caught by the shore of a frozen lake, the dog trappers were perspiring even in the chill. That was the artificial lake we visited often in Moscow. Made by the arduous efforts of hundreds of political prisoners over a matter of years, that lake had a major influence in Russia’s ecology.
On hearing the finer details, Priyanka shot an array of questions.
‘What food do you give her? Mutton, fish?’
‘No dear,’ I replied, ‘a dog going to space cannot take fish or meat along. We give her a special gelatinized form of food.’
‘Where does she sleep, Papa?’
‘Inside a canister! She is very smart. So smart that she does not create a ruckus or get agitated like other dogs. Do you know what we tried last week? We made her don a space suit and conducted experiments inside a plane flying at high altitudes. There are so many more experiments pending trial…’
Priyanka, adept in the world of imagination, went on visualizing a space-suit clad dog. Insisting on seeing a picture, she made me sketch the scene.
‘Huh! What’s this? A mouse?’
Since I was poor in drawing, the dog I depicted was pathetically resembling a mouse!
Even Engineering Drawing had always been scary for me.
‘Today happens to be Sunday, right?’ To save face, I attempted a ploy. ‘See, if one sketches a dog on a Sunday, it will look like a mouse!’
‘Good that nobody sketched your picture today, Papa. Wonder which creature it would have resembled!’
When the guile, tried to deceive the innocence of childhood, was returned with its edge broken, I was rendered answerless. Yet, Priyanka did not abandon my dog belonging to the mouse species.
That night the child slept after listening to many more stories related to Laika.
At the very bottom of the letter, there was an underlined reminder to Amma about feeding the One-legged Crow.
Though Amma fed all the crows, she had a special care for the one-legged one. Especially because Simon and his father had nurtured it until the little fledgling could spread its wings. It could neither land in places where other crows frequented nor maneuver itself and snatch a morsel of food. The leftovers were its sole hope. But chances for such crumbs were very small in a village. And so, Amma would always put aside something for the One-legged Crow. The bird too was aware of the routine. Without being the part of the raucous crowd, it would wait patiently in the anointed place, for its turn.
Apart from the crow, there was a squirrel too in the yard, that Amma fed regularly. There was a story behind the squirrel becoming a frequent guest. Once as it was relishing the rice drying on the palm-frond mattress, a cat had pounced on it. It was a smart aleck of a feline! If any dog wandered into the yard when it had given birth to its litter, the cat would unleash a terrible assault on the invader. It would scratch, hiss and yowl terribly. Due to the unexpected and ferocious nature of the attack, any mighty dog would lose its equanimity and flee for its life! The squirrel had been caught in the jaws of that canny cat!
Amma had somehow managed to salvage the squirrel from the fangs of the feline. The squirrel had bitten Amma desperately as it thrashed around for its life. A squirrel’s bite caused an intense, stinging pain. In spite of the agony, Amma was adamant on her life saving mission. The squirrel was on the verge of death, its neck mangled and bleeding. Ensuring water for the wretched creature, applying butter on the wounds, she murmured prayers while it lay on her palm and caressed it tenderly. Like a dead person resurrecting, the squirrel regained its life.
For a fortnight, the squirrel stayed close to Amma. On being able to climb trees, it scampered back but returned every day to eat cooked rice directly from Amma’s hands. One would be wonderstruck at the intimacy between animals and humans observing such interactions. Amma looked after the One-legged Crow and squirrel with the same dedication with which she cared for Simon. The pristine goodness of the village did not envisage distances between humans, animals or trees.
After writing the letter to his mother, Simon wrote in his daily diary with his black pen. It was a habit instilled in him from the ‘moral studies’ class at school. Then he scrawled a crow’s picture on the diary page too. There were many pictures scattered across the diary. Unconsciously, each picture would encapsulate the day’s poignancy. The last picture he sketched depicted the pang of separation in a dry, desolate background. His moral studies teacher at school had intoned that regular habits of writing and drawing helped to overcome inhibitions and even gain a mastery over both. Simon had used his golden pen for diary writing until now.
Now that Simon had to use the black pen, he was vexed at the start, but slowly the heavy burden seemed to move away. The humungous fears turned to be deceptive. It was easy to write with the black pen. There was an allure and elegance about the alphabets it crafted. Simon decided to use the pen for his immediate requirements until he visited home.
Simon’s hostel room was in the third floor. Intermittently, the resounding boom marking time from the tall tower could be heard. Especially during the nights, when all other sounds died down and nature stilled, the chime of the clock rang out louder and clearer. Since Simon was in the floor whose window opened out to the clock-tower, it was probably he who heard the time ring out first, feeling it most powerfully. Every time the clock tolled the time, Simon stared at it through the window. He saw the divine form standing with the hands spread over time.
Simon imagined sprouting two wings and taking a single flight from the hostel and landing at the zenith of the monument. In a way, it was predestined that he lived in such close proximity with the structure. The tower lured him to the days he spent with his Appan. It brought to mind Mesthiri, Outha and the village. Ruminating that Outha will be watching the same tower, which he watched at close distance, through his binoculars back in the village, Simon felt the distance between him and his home dwindling fast to become nullified. He visualized a hanging bridge connecting the acme of the clock-tower to the porch of his village home.
And here is the book, published by Penguin Random House India. Every dream begins with a hope of fruition. Though it takes sweat and perseverance to climb the mountain. But the happiness is worth all that struggle!
The whole universe is a magical place. What happens to us is decided by our thoughts/words/actions melding with the Universal Mind. How the sequence plays out is the beautiful magic.
Aranya Kanda : The canto of the forest , from Tulsidasji’s Shri Ramcharitmanas has gone into publication. The Lord explores the forests and blesses many a sage in this lovely portion. Mata Sita gets abducted by Ravan and Jatayu is granted salvation by Lord Ram. The poet describes the forests, the trees, animals and birds with much affection in the original Awadhi; and my adventure in understanding and interpreting was truly blessed by His Grace.
Simultaneously, I was translating Dattapaharam- a stunning novel about the forests and its great role in human lives; by V.J.James. The author is one of the most erudite and humble people I have known in my life. Truly has the Ramayana spoken of ‘fruit laden trees bending low’: great souls are utterly simple, so unassuming and kind. They also laugh a lot.
The fact that both the books are going into print together brings me much hope and cheer. They say when coincidences happen in a miraculous manner, when serendipity graces us, the divine plan is meeting our life plan.
May the Lord help us to follow the divine path always. And empower us to do our work with humility.
Few hymns to the magic:
While I was poring over the edits of Aranyakanda and reached the portion of Mareech getting killed by the Lord, I casually clicked on songs in my mobile with nothing particular in my mind.
The song enveloped my senses, enchanting me.
I gazed at the mobile screen.
There He was: My Lord Ram, so beautiful and glorious, with Sita, and she was staring at the golden deer!
Tumhi mere Ram, tumhi Ghanshyam!
How could that happen?
I called my friend in utter delight and she asked me to bow my head lower.
He watches over every speck of dust, does he not?
I was struggling with translating a sentence which spoke of ‘sighting that which lay beyond the visible.’ Indeed, the portion referred to seeing what usually remains unseen by going inwards…a deep, spiritually heavy sentence. Typical of the author’s style, super simple, and oh-so-heavy with meaning!
I tried many a combination and permutation. The zing of satisfaction did not come.
My phone pinged. Another dear friend had forwarded a Sufi song…Tu Jhoom sung by the inimitable Abida Parveen.
Ah, Lord! Just what I needed!
The sentence translated itself in matter of moments.
He watches over every green blade , does he not?
So both the forest journeys, soon to be in book forms, are hereby dedicated to the Lord.
He, who is love
He, who is kindness
He, who is mine
Chidambaram : Story by C.V.Sreeraman
This iconic story was adapted by G.Aravindan , one of the greatest film directors of Malayalam cinema into a multiple award winning movie starring Bharat Gopi, Smita Patil, Sreenivasan et al in the year 1985
As he stepped inside through the front gate of the temple’s entrance, the man recollected the lines of Ayappa Dixitar :
Chidambaramitam pradhamithameva punyasthalam
This is Chidambaram, primarily, a sacred place.
His eyes forayed the surroundings. The sheer size was awe inspiring. There were four gopurams – ornamental towers- kissing the skies. Though similar in appearance, the stone sculptures were unique in themselves. The innumerable corridors and vaults interconnecting the towers seemed like the simulacrum of a fort; more intimidating than the temple.
He walked through the stone-paved pathway outside the inner temple. The sunlight was still not ceding defeat. It had just started abating. The man walked over the green grass thriving along the edges. As prickly thorns pierced the inner soles, he remembered the slippers which he had left behind… Another thought troubled him. Though there were four tower entrances, why had he chosen the southern gopuram? Would his mind have been enslaved with misgivings had he entered through any of the others?
Had the uncertainties started at the entrance of the southern gopuram? No.
In the journey from Kadaloor, this bizarre distraction had begun when he had crossed the village of Manaloor.
When he had seen the signboard of the village on the roadside, inadvertently his mouth had enunciated:
Sarpannan Shengodan Konar
Post Manaloor, Via Chidambaram
In those days, he would write down that address on the inland letters which Akhilandammal would bring.
Deep in thoughts, he walked on. He reached the temple pond. The vast pond lay within the temple boundary walls, with sharp, clean steps descending to the waters. The man sat on the ledge. There were two sanyasis nearby. One picked up the container of ash which had slipped down from the fish shaped kavadi leaning against the wall and refixed it to the contraption. The man cast a careful look at them. How sturdy and healthy they looked. There was a patina of contentment on their mien. What would have instigated them to seek sanyasa?
The man was forced to think about himself then.
‘Well, if you listen to me, you might survive for some years.’
That was not spouted by any scholar of Vedanta but by his doctor.
After many months, when the doctor had seen him again, he had tersely remarked, ‘ You are still going strong with your habits. Any idea about the condition of your liver? Really alarming…’
Then the doctor had elucidated further, ‘ See, I am a heart patient. I also had some vices. Though not as acute as yours, I still managed to control those. I became more and more religious. Whenever temptations came my way, I would read the Bible. You should become religious…read religious texts.’
That day, he had wearily faced the luscious advertisements; and walked to the bookstore he had never entered before. When he eyed the books on the racks, he found that most authors were unfamiliar. When he read books by Roman Rolland and Lokmanya Tilak, the misery only increased. There was nothing he had not known before; but he felt envious about their power of articulation. He went on reading. At that time, he had developed swelling on his feet. He had gone to the doctor again.
‘You need to move away from this atmosphere. Take a trip somewhere…preferably religious places.’
That was how he began his journey.
Now, on watching the radiant good health of the man who was explaining Vedanta to the listener; legs crossed and his matsya-kavadi leaning against the wall, the man started contemplating:
Was physical rigour the beginning of sanyasa?
Was sanyasa the refuge of the anguished?
Or was it an adventure wrought by an overwhelming greed for survival?
The man’s mind refused to be contained by these musings. The ruminations which had pestered him when he entered through the southern tower entrance refused to leave his mind.
The more he tried to forget those, the chakravyuha of thoughts were assaulting him from all sides.
In the lacerated mind, the picture of Durgaprasad’s building at Haddo took shape. It had wooden walls and an iron sheet for roof. Port Blair town tapered away until it ended at Haddo. The hills of Haddo played a hide and seek game with the sea…The days and nights spent staring at the sea…How the sea’s cheeks flushed ripe when the tide rose and how it paled during the ebbing…how the bones of the sea showed up in the craggy rocks on the beach…
Vechhapuri and his wife had come to live in a corner of that building. The wife’s name was Akhilandammal. Her face displayed the droopiness of a sapling which had been transplanted onto strange soil. Except for a lush head of hair, there was nothing alluring about the woman. It was better to refer to her as a grown up girl than as a young woman.
She too, like him, would sit staring at the sea forever. Once she had asked, ‘Why is the sea so dark in colour over here?’ He had replied, ‘That is why we call it the Kalapani in Hindustani.’ Kalapani also meant an exile from the mainland.
It was the loneliness which had brought them close. Depression seemed to be dripping around in that absolute solitude. The woman was alone the whole day. She could often be seen sobbing…caught in the memories of a village which lay somewhere on the opposite shore of the great sea. At other times, she would write letters to her father. He would jot down the address for her.
It did not take much time for them to become intimate, soon trespassing all ethical boundaries. Initially he called her, ‘Akhilandammal.’ Then it became ‘Akhilammal’. When she insisted, it turned into ‘Pappa’, and when her lips moved over his cheek, he could not help whimpering, ‘My Pappa’…
At one time their relationship had come to a point of ending. Vecchapuri got a room in the neighbouring labour camp and he shifted his residence. But on a midnight, out of the blue, the woman had come searching for him. As he stood blanching, she murmured, ‘Vecchapuri has night duty.’ He yearned to ask, ‘But why did you come at this odd hour?’ She had replied to the question which never left his lips. ‘ I felt like seeing you and so I came.’
Soon, whenever Vechhapuri had night duty, she would appear in his room without any forewarning.
But when had he visited the labour barrack for the first time? He could hardly remember. But he would never forget about the last departure from the place. One could gaze at the lights of the government saw mill at Chittam island through the cracks of the wooden walls of the labour barrack. The man used to keep checking the lights intermittently.
That night the lights had shut down suddenly. The man had stepped out. He was waiting for the lights to flare up again. But the sharp stink of sweat and sawdust had filled the surroundings suddenly. He was shellshocked. The shadow in front gathered strength. Vechhapuri. He had started walking briskly and turned to cast a backward glance. Vechhapuri was following him. By the time he scrambled up the weed ridden ridge and entered the main road, the man had started running. Without wasting time to look back, alert to the horse hoofs of death in the sounds closing on him. On seeing the lighted attic of the Malayali hotel at Haddo, he had rushed inside. He was acquainted with the inmates. The men were busy playing cards by candle light.
His fear had not ceased even after sitting next to his friends; and often he peeped to watch the surroundings. Vechhapuri stood there, waiting.
When the dawn broke, and the workers from the powerhouse arrived, the reason behind the sudden load shedding was revealed. There had been a blast at the powerhouse. Engineer Swami and two laborers had been electrocuted. By the time it was morning, another news spread, making the former snippet insignificant. Vecchapuri had hacked his wife to pieces. Then he had run away to the Corbin’s cove. By mid day, another update came. Vechhapuri had hanged himself in the mangrove forests at the shore.
That day the man had felt just one emotion: a pale, icy cold, eternally following terror.
Two days later, when had gone to his senior to get signature on some legal documents for revenue collection, the man had given him a very compassionate look. The boss did not mention that he was privy to all the salacious tales doing the rounds, but his glance had contained everything. Then his senior said:
‘I will transfer you to the most remote area. There is a colonization going on in Atlanta Bay. A group is leaving tomorrow. Join them.’
The benevolent boss, who had always come to his aid in any adverse circumstance, had yet again helped him. The next day when he moved to various places bidding farewell, he suddenly asked the truck driver to stop. He walked to the female ward of the hospital. There was a group of Tamil women silently surrounding a cot. A body wrapped in bandages…it looked like a bale of cotton. Death was flirting lazily. Yama’s lasso refused to loop around that cotton bundle.
After many months, he got to know -even the deepest wound around Pappa’s neck had healed. Two fingers had been totally hacked away. Tamil acquaintances collected some money for her voyage. Pappa had left for her village.
Today, seated on the steps of the temple pond of Chidambaram, he was remembering all of it. Now, he was reminded of furiously moving, evanescent autumn clouds as he reminisced Atlanta Bay’s settlement and Port Blair.
The man stood up. The sanyasis were still enthralled by some story from the puranas.
Few dwarfish stone pillars inscribed with lines in Tamil. He regretted that he could not read the language. He knew how to write his name and also Pappa in Tamil. She had taught him. He reached a dark corridor. A foreigner, with the hair do and markings of a Vaishnavaite, was negotiating with a temple lackey. Money exchanged hands. Was it a bribe for a darshan before due time or an advance for some illicit deal involving idols?
He moved through that corridor and stopped before the gigantic, shut door.
The man imagined Lord Shambhu as Nataraja.
He wondered, when the sanctum sanctorum opens and when the statue of Nataraja becomes resplendent before him, what shall he plead for? To remove his liver disease or to grant him peace of mind? Or to help him attain moksha: salvation?
He felt like laughing. Liver disease.
Now he laughed.
It was a sickness he had intentionally cultivated over the years, by obdurately ignoring his body.
Peace of mind? Again, he laughed.
While expediently flexing his thoughts to suit his desires, his mind had been nowhere in the picture!
Has he ever prayed for the moksha of a person who willingly came to share his sin?
He made haste to move out of the corridor of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple. In the broad daylight, when his eyes fell on his saffron long shirt and loose pajamas, he felt self-condemnation more than mortification.
The man recited:
kamyanam karmanam nyasam
sannyasam kavayo viduh
( Bhagwad Gita part of verse 18.2 …Giving up actions motivated by desire is what the wise understand as sanyasa)
With great difficulty, he kept on murmuring the lines and walked forward. Then he retrieved from the pocket the token meant for the safekeeping of his slippers. Pay ten paisa, give back the token and claim his footwear.
He went searching for the woman who had talked to him with great ease while giving him the token and whose tone and tenor had reminded him of Pappa. She was sitting at the edge of the decrepit old well; her hands folded against her chest. There was a black muffler wrapped around her throat. The man gazed at her intently. Was she hiding his Pappa somewhere inside those grey strands of hair and engorged cheeks full of folds and lines?
As he wore his slippers the man asked: ‘Amma, are you from this place?’
‘No, the village where I was born is slightly far off.’
He asked her name instead of the name of the village.
‘My name?’ The woman became provoked, ‘Hey swami, clad in saffron and seeking moksha, what will you gain by knowing my name? Better go away!’
The man walked away, his feet clad in slippers, without a backward glance.
V Shinilal is a brilliant young writer in Malayalam. My eyes welling up with tears, I couldn’t help translating few pages from his book 124: part memoir, part everything. Essential reading.
(All mistakes of translation are mine.
Dedicated to that special teacher who trusted in you when the stakes were down.)
Mallan made his appearance for the first time during my student days in the eighth standard at Poovathur Government Highschool. The class leader was a girl called Sanitha who never smiled. I was besotted with that girl flashing her dimples and nose-ring; but not having the guts to express it, had a gnawing resentment towards her too. Instinctively sensing my inner ruminations, whenever Sanitha wrote down the names of those who were boisterous in the class, she scribbled my name vindictively. When the class teacher caned me, I would throw a surreptitious glance at her. She would be beaming with satisfaction.
It was while feeling pretty depressed after those hidings, that I decided to write a story featuring a wicked female class leader. That was my first story.
The story reached Sanitha, having been read and passed over many a hand. She started sobbing bitterly after reading it. All hell broke loose. The teacher rushed in. ‘Discipline, decorum, his blasted story writing!’ Yelling at the top of his voice, he hauled me to the front of the classroom and made me stand facing the wall; my back exposed to my classmates. I had only a solitary prayer then. Please do not make me stand with my posterior facing forty children. There were two holes in my short trousers, deftly hidden by the long shirt I was wearing. The wave of humiliation submerged even my tears. As the class rocked with laughter, I beseechingly looked into my teacher’s eyes. His eyes reddened with fury, the teacher did not see the wretchedness staring at him.
His stick was raised. I felt that a mace of mortification was being aimed at me. Suddenly I grabbed his cane. It was not me who did that; verily, it was someone else. I called him Mallan (The fighter). Whenever I feel weary, Mallan would awake within. Whenever my writing stops, he would stand behind me : challenging and provoking me onward. Whenever I am humiliated, he would retaliate with a vicious hiss. Whenever attacked, he would savagely counter.
Mallan was/is my confidante, my strength. Until time whittled him down, he travelled with me.
That was how the class teacher sent me to the Head Mistress’s room.
The Head Mistress’ name was Mangalabhayee. She had taught my father too. I had seen him stand obsequiously to the side, the folds of his mundu reverentially down, on encountering her on the street.
Both the teachers and students were in awe of her. Her dignified voice and elegant attire commanded respect. The smattering of greying hairs on her upper-lips added to her authority. Sketching her picture on the school walls, brats scribbled ‘Indira Gandhi’ underneath. Our Head Mistress would hide her secret glee.
I stood outside the room, waiting to be called. My world would soon be reduced into a small room. I would be ushered inside a single judge court imminently; a trial conducted by a dictator who would not listen to reasons or justifications.
‘Come’, the peon beckoned. I lumbered my way in. The corridor seemed like a tunnel of darkness. With every footstep, my world became more desolate. Finally, only Mangalabhayee teacher and I were left in it.
Teacher, who was busy writing on a file, looked up from the opposite side of the table. The cloth covering the table was green in hue. I stared at the grey bristles on her upper-lip.
‘Huh?’ Teacher hummed questioningly. That moment, Mallan emerged from inside, yet again. I was possessed by an untrammeled courage. Even the loss of face due to my pathetic attire ceased.
Teacher started reading the story. Her brows corrugated. Unexpectedly a smile blossomed on her lips. When the class teacher stepped inside the room, she sent him away with a withering glance.
‘You are a smart boy!’ Teacher called me to her side. ‘You know how to write stories, don’t you?’
I stood with my head bowed.
‘Don’t stop writing stories.’
Stunned, I looked up at Mangalabhayee teacher’s face.
‘But one should never write a story, or anything, with the intention of hurting anyone, okay?’
On the same day, I had been given punishment and encouragement for writing! I could not hold on anymore. I burst into wracking sobs. Do not ask me why I cried. Teacher hugged me close and planted a kiss on my forehead.
As I moved out, my class teacher went inside the room. I could hear the Head Mistress’ resounding words echoing outside: ‘ What do you know about children? Their emotions, talents? The world belongs to those who raise their voices and not to the silent. Do you know that?’
Mallan patted me on my shoulders then. Then he murmured, ‘People are not what we think they are!’ Untucking his mundu, Mallan sauntered away.
After decades, I went to meet Mangalabhayee teacher, accompanied by my son. That day, I returned the loving kiss she had given me in my childhood.
Excerpt from the Translation of Sonia Rafeeq’s novel : Pennkkuttikalude Veedu, 2021
‘The House of Girls’
Maybe if my mother were alive, I would not have been so intimate with Rukhiyami. When I was twelve, one night, I asked my aunt whether my Ummi too narrated stories. ‘Not all mothers are alike. There are mothers different from yours and mine’, she replied. And followed it up with yet another story.
Although it was with the preface that the story was based on an Algerian folktale, I gravely suspect that it was of her own making! The very script flowed in such a way.
Once upon a time, there was a woman. Whenever the twilight set in, she would stand on her terrace and ask the moon : ‘ Hey moon, is there anyone prettier than me?’ The moon would retort : ‘You are pretty, I am pretty. No one prettier than you though!’
Meanwhile the woman became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. She named her Lalla. The next day, she came to the terrace and repeated her question : ‘Hey moon, is there anyone prettier than me?’ The moon replied, ‘I am pretty, you are pretty. No one prettier than Lalla though!’
The woman blazed with jealousy. ‘Prettier than me? Shall I kill her then?’ The moon responded calmy, ‘Sure, but after she stops breast feeding.’ Thus one year passed. The woman repeated her query : ‘Shall I kill her then?’ The moon said, ‘Not yet. Let her learn to walk and run.’ After few years, the woman started pestering the moon again. The moon replied, ‘ Let her learn to cook first.’ After few years, the reply was , ‘Let her learn to sew clothes.’
Lalla grew into a beautiful woman. Now , when the woman asked the moon the question, it replied, ‘ Lalla is of marriageable age now, and you can kill her if you wish.’ The woman sent Lalla to the forests with a butcher after gifting him with money and ornaments. She ordered that Lalla’s blood be brought back to her in a bottle as proof of her muder. The butcher could not bring himself to kill the lovely girl. He left her inside the forest and returned to the woman with a bottle full of goat’s blood. The woman drank it and expressed her satisfaction.
Lalla, meanwhile became devastated at the loneliness, hunger and thirst which surrounded her and sought refuge in a tunnel. When she woke up, she heard seven demons howling over the prey they had killed. She hid herself in terror. After the feats, the youngest demon said, ‘I can smell human blood near.’ His brothers reprimanded him, ‘You are a fool. There’s nobody near.’ When everybody slept, Lalla sneaked in and retrieved a bit of food and water for herself. When the youngest demon woke up the next morning, he started hollering : ‘ Told you, didn’t I? A man has stolen our food and drink!’ They searched everywhere but Lalla stay hidden and safe.
‘Rukhiyami, this is the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.’
‘Can’t there be any other Snow Whites in the rest of the world? This the Snow White from Algeria. Shut up and listen. No questions in the middle of a story!’
‘The demons started howling…’If anyone is hiding , come out immediately!’ When Lalla stepped out in fear, her astounding beauty floored them. They swore that they would treat her like a younger sister. She cooked for them , made clothes, cleaned the house, looked after them…
Lalla’s wicked mother stepped out to the terrace and asked the moon : ‘So tell me, who is the prettiest of them all?’ The moon laughed, ‘I am pretty, you are pretty. But Lalla is the prettiest of them all. She lives in the forest with seven brothers.’
The woman could not bear the shock of that revelation and died then and there.
In course of time, all the seven brothers fell in love with Lalla. ‘ I will marry her; I am the eldest!’ said one. ‘No way, I will be her husband, I am the youngest,’ retorted another. Lalla found a way out of the conundrum. ‘The one whose hands reddens most with the henna paste shall become my husband.’ She slathered the henna paste on all their hands but none had red hands at dawn. Lalla had cleverly made a paste of other herbs and not of henna.
One day, all seven brothers went away hunting but did not return at eventide. When Lalla got tired waiting for them, she started eating some boiled beans. Then a cat wandered into her room. ‘ You have eaten my beans, ’it meowed accusingly at Lalla. Lalla was outraged and emptied a whole sack of beans in front of the creature. ‘ I want to eat my beans!’ It purred angrily.
‘I have eaten your beans!’ Lalla lashed out spitefully. The enraged cat pissed into the smouldering embers. Now Lalla had no fire to cook food or keep cold at bay. Lalla stepped into the forest searching for fire.
Seeing the glow of fire afar, she went closer. It was the hut of a demoness. She gave Lalla some embers in a pot. It was almost reduced to ashes. Cinders fell wherever Lalla trailed. The demoness followed that trail and reached Lalla’s home. She pummeled seven long nails into Lalla’s head. Lalla became motionless as if she had died.
When the brothers returned, they mistook Lalla to be dead and started wailing in despair. They did not wish to bury her and so tied her up on a mare and let the creature free in the forest. The mare reached in front of a palace and the crown prince ushered it inside. The King asked, ‘Why, this is a corpse!’ They entrusted the body to a woman for readying it for customary death rites. When the woman removed the seven nails during the course of readying her, Lalla regained her life. The prince insisted on marrying the pretty girl. Finally, the King obliged.
Lalla gave birth to a son. Once, when he was playing with the children of ministers, a squabble broke out amidst them. ‘Your mother is a wastrel with no clan or home!’ The young boy came crying to Lalla. She was agonized and spoke : ‘Tell your father that your mother wishes to see her seven brothers.’ After a few days’ searching the soldiers found the seven demons with bowed heads, cast down with the pain of loss. They were invited for a feast inside the palace. After the repast, the son asked Lalla to narrate a story. Lalla started speaking about her life.
The seven brothers embraced her happily at the end of the tale. They went to the house of the wicked demoness and killed her. The demoness had seven beautiful daughters. Lalla got them married to her seven brothers.’
‘Married them to demonesses?’ I protested vociferously and Rukhiyami snapped, ‘Not possible to marry off demons to human women, right?’ I felt that one’s own mother thirsting for her daughter’s blood was a bit too much of an imaginative twist. Perhaps, stepmother stories hadn’t picked up pace by then. That was something the Brothers Grimm brought into vogue later. Whenever she narrated stories, Rukhiyami’s face became rosy, her eyes sparkled and widened; the drape over her head slipping away due to the excitement.
A dream turns into reality…how beautiful when all the hours of toil evolve into a gorgeous book. May the words continue to bless us all….Big thank you to team Penguin Random House, Kanishka Gupta and above all to the brilliant author (for trusting me with his book).
June, I am waiting for you!
Remembering a favourite poet and her words now…
by Mary Oliver
Be still, my soul, and steadfast.
Earth and heaven both are still watching
though time is draining from the clock
and your walk, that was confident and quick,
has become slow.
So, be slow if you must, but let
the heart still play its true part.
Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful. That the gift has been given.
“Minda-Praani” , a poem by Prof. Veeran Kutty
( This poem won the Kerala Sahitya Academy Award recently)
Translation from Malayalam:
It is very convenient-
That the Dead shall not rise again.
Treat them with utmost disregard,
They will not raise a whimper.
That guy in the mortuary,
Who cracks open the skull
With a hammer,
He gives a damn
That it was once a man.
The lad in the stone quarry,
Will display more care and compassion.
Inside the gaping stomach,
Brains, liver and the ilk are dumped
Before the sewing: a sight to watch!
School kids will stitch up a torn ball
Better than that.
Anyone, can commit any atrocity,
On those bereft of refuge, right?
The House of the Dead
Can be identified by the tent
In the front yard.
Someone will drag an old, greying tarpaulin,
Someone else will stretch it haphazardly:
The edges and corners all awry.
The effrontery is because
The one to take umbrage has left.
The play tents made by kids will have more finesse.
It was his last chance to lie
That was snuffed out with two white drapes.
How resplendent he was during his wedding!
Never would a guest feel unwelcome in his home,
A more generous host was hard to find.
What of it, anyway?
Those who came to see him for the last time
Were offered neither a seat
Nor a drop of water.
While digging the grave, why was there
No space left for him
To turn on his side at least?
Who knows how long he has to be in there?
The relief that he has finally departed
Shall be celebrated by serving payasam*,
During the Feast for the Dead.
Everyone is busy competing
In his name,
To do all that he abhorred.
No wonder then,
That the Dead never return.
Payasam: a special sweet gruel made of milk, jaggery or semolina, cashew nuts, raisins et al.