The moving lanterns
Once a rumor was rife that the world was coming to an end. There was this union of eight planets , which signified that the apocalypse had arrived. Strange , hideous creatures roamed the streets at night .Headless monsters would be knocking at your door at midnight and if you opened the door you would freeze to death at the sight of the devil .He had terrifying nights ; while the whole world had slept he stood wide awake awaiting the arrival of the headless monster. He spent countless hours praying to Hanuman who alone could deliver you from out of this danger. He always looked at the lone tiled structure in the Jaggarao's garden with a fear in his belly . That was where the bodies were cut open for postmortem. There was another low-roofed tiled structure in Jaggarao's orchard which housed the rain-meter which mystified him .How did the meter gauge the rain and measure it in so many inches of rainfall? When there were heavy rains the roads
were flooded with knee-deep gutter water He had to wade through to reach the school only to find it closed. The raingauge was a conical â€“shaped device which collected rain-drops into a flask at the bottom forming a column of water the height of which indicated the rainfall. When it rained it was for two or three days at a stretch . The crows sat listlessly on the mango trees occasionally flapping their wings in order to shake off the wetness. The rains did not last the whole season . Soon the hills became dry and devoid of vegetation .The black-berry bushes yielded rich succulent berries .The lizards came out into the open as the bare hillside began emitting hot waves of reflected sunlight. The nights were opaquely dark and bitingly crisp .The kerosene lamps on the roads stood ominously like jack-of- the â€“lanterns waiting to pounce on the stray passers-by. He was deeply afraid of the little flickering ghost-lamps that seemed to be wandering in the vast expanse of the moonless nights. He had heard of the lamps chasing people walking on deserted
roads. He tried to rationalize to himself the phenomenon of the wandering lampghosts .As corpses burned on the lighted piers late into the night their bones crackled to release flickering specks of strange phosphorescence into the atmosphere .At least that was what he thought. He several times woke up in the morning to hear the plaintive cries of the tituva bird . The mournful cry of this bird portended certain disaster and death. The world looked so unreal .Was the mango tree and the kerosene lantern on the court street real? The shadows of the flickering lanterns stretched weakly into the heart of the liquid moonlight shadows but retained their gray textures. The dried leaves at the foot of the mango tree rustled meaninglessly as the sleeping lizard suddenly woke up from its half-awake state to catch a passing fly. During the day he pursued stray dogs with sharp stones and as they yelled in pain he shook in sweaty fear at the prospect of spending an eternity in burning cauldrons in the deepest parts of hell .
On the outskirts of the town Dr.Gullison , the missionary from Canada stayed in a moss-laden bungalow which inspired awe in the children .On Sundays the children of the town ,many of them in rags, collected in the portico of the bungalow waiting for delicious blobs of European cheese to be dropped in their outstretched palms by the Doctor's servants. The children then went to the Protestant church nearby where they waited in queue to receive free milk , made out of imported milk powder, in over-sized brass vessels put in their tiny hands by their greedy mothers. The milk tasted good and was found useful by the mothers for making a part of it into delicious curd. Dr.Gullison had a heart of gold .He served the community with devotion . His pretty nurse-daughter worked as the superintendent â€“nurse whose broken Telugu amused the poor patients at her father's hospital. His protĂŠgĂŠ , a certain Dr. Copullai , worked wonders for the eyeless. The legendary Copullai restored eyesight to hundreds of poor patients . It was Dr. Puri , the native Oriya doctor
, who attended on the lower middle class patients who believed in the efficacy of the Telugu medicine .Telugu medicine meant the the traditional Indian medical system. When he had headaches with vomiting sensation all the ladies surrounded him attending on him with motherly affection. When there was fever Dr.Puri gave small pellets of lehya which was supposed to take its effect only under strict diet. Once he became terribly ill .He thought that was the end of the dream â€“state he was passing through. He was delirious with high fever and as he slipped away into another world he almost came face to face with Him .There was this confusing obliteration of his physical self as the ladies pushed a bunch of his house-keys into his hands. The boy is getting into fits !The gaggle of concerned women shouted. The iron keys thrust into his palms would prevent him from slipping into unconsciousness. He dreamed of his father who had never existed for him except in his dreams. He had heard the silent moans of his mother several times at the dead of the night.
His father , the angel of his dreams ,pursued him like the insubstantial shadow that strode behind him in the lazy afternoons . He was an exquisite dream , a fragment of his imagination that had never existed .As he lay beside his mother with his head on the bend of her elbow he re-lived the electric pain of his existence , a highly charged electric existence that was finally to blow up in a fantastic explosion of orange and crimson phosphorescence. Several years later ,in 2003, he encountered the flimsy nonexistence of his father once again in the foggy outreach of a fish city .As he prayed at the temple he could instantly recognize , through the unbroken connectivity of the Lord's photoelectric refulgence ,the blinding luminescence of his all-knowing smile Satyanarayana,his grandmother's brother ,was the landlord of the house where the family stayed. The one-room thatched house always contained roomful of people. Satyanarayana, a thin wiry angry man,enjoyed exercising his masculine authority over his helpless
wife. When he spoke his eyes flashed as though a live volcano erupted through them .His angry mouth was full with halfeaten betel leaf with pungent pan masala. He charged a full Rs.15 for the one -room thatched house he had let out to the family. He faced him always with trepidation. At night he slept alone on the veranda and sometimes on the road facing the house .He was deeply afraid of the old man because everything about him suggested an imminent explosion which would burn him off without leaving a trace. When Satyanarayna uncle spoke the lava spread like from a freshly erupted volcano. The expletives in his speech issued at the speed of a stengun . Bhaskar , the little boy of ten ,one day came back from school and complained of a stomach upset .The next day he was laid out on a bamboo stretcher with his eyes wide open and the eyeballs protruding in a most undignified manner. He could not understand what happened to Bhaskar. Why was he not getting up and taking his schoolbag to accompany us in our daily trudge to school ?From out of the straw
bed on the bamboo stretcher Bhaskar stared at the Tituva bird which made circular motions in the sky above the Jaggarao's garden crying "Ti Ti Ya" .He thought with a shudder when the bird would sing titiya for him .He spent sleepless nights waiting for the bird's mournful song .When he woke up in the morning he heard the plaintive cry every day from out of the blank space that stretched above the lone tiled structure in the Jaggarao's garden where they cut open bodies for postmortem. In the Sharad ritu , on the third day ,the moon shone more beautifully than ever. Girls worshiped the moon praying for a very good husband. They woke up at 4'O clock in the morning and ate cool rice and curd , had their pretty palms filled with the beautiful leafy-redness and played the hide-and-seek game .Their delicate frames swayed like the wild jasmine bushes that trembled in the face of a strong gust of wind .They laughed intermittently for no apparent reason . When they laughed their oiled plaits shook against their alabaster necks and
cast ethereal shadows on their fairy-like existence. He shook with apparent unease each time they laughed .He almost always feared that they were laughing at him and did not know why. He spent time , when alone, walking on the four-foot compound wall of the court delicately balancing himself .There was this hall in the center of the old tiled structure of the Court where the Judge sat holding his court. Above him oscillated the pull-punkah , with a string one end of which was pulled by a peon sitting in the veranda outside. It was very funny how they called out names of the witnesses. A peon called out the name of the witness in a singsong fashion twice and then paused for a while before calling him for the third and the last time .The heat outside was very oppressive and the clients and the blackcoated lawyers huddled to the shade of the only tree in the compound. He wondered what finally happened to the disputed property . Has the claimant finally got it ?The lawyer's Adams apple went up and down in a most comical fashion as the client looked at him with
fervent hope .The Bilwa tree skirting the compound wall yielded rich pulpy fruits ,hard from outside and inedible so unlike the Sitaphal tree on the other side of the compound wall whose delicious fruits he had plucked many a time . The Sitaphal tree which skirted the other side of the compound wall bore greenpetaled flowers which tasted funny .The children ate the petals for their astringent taste so different from the Ramaphal which ,sweeter and rounder ,tasted even better when ripe. The Sitaphal bore Sita's name while its cousin , the Ramaphal took Rama's name. Before Sankranti the children collected firewood for the ensuing Bhogi festival when there would be a bonfire to celebrate Rama's victory over the evil forces represented by Ravana .He wore a new shirt , a silken one for the festival with several large floral prints .Somebody threw a flat-stone onto the sloping thatch of his house-roof which slided on to the ground and landed on his head .He felt that he reached the end of his earthly journey as warm blood began to ooze out of the deep gash on forehead
and started trickling on to the shirt with the bright red floral prints. The blood was excruciatingly purple and flowed intermittently on to his silken shirt forming lovely floral patterns synchronizing so precisely with the shirt's floral design. The purple wound was made to eat crystals of sugar for that is how one did first aid for a superficial wound. On the veranda slept the ancient granny on a string cot .Blind and unaware of the world she thought she ruled the world .For twenty years she lay on the cot mumbling to herself all the commands she would like to give to others. She thought she was at the center-stage because all decisions of the family get referred to her . Which was a delightful illusion perpetuated by her children. Her world existed behind her visionless eyelids .There she presided over all the affairs of her family .She had, over the years of darkness, developed a keen sense of touch with which she could instantly recognize people. Deep within she saw herself in the center of the frightening hell-fires
of a useless existence .Nothing mattered to anybody .She would one day be made to lie supine on a palm mat on the ground and await death with drops of holy Ganges water being dropped into her open mouth. She knew that. Not only would she be made to sprawl on the floor but they would take her away on a bamboo stretcher to some unknown place where they would light the fire to her with the smoke rising to the skies. After that they would partition the place where she is now lying with a new bamboo mat to indicate that for six months nobody should go anywhere near the place. Sharada the over-sized daughter of the head-master always played with girls with pigtails .When she played hide-and -seek it was so easy to spot her behind the wooden pillar .He who played with the girls on the wakeful nights of shivaratri found it was tragic for Sharada to get caught out so easily merely because of her over-size.On the Shivaratri all the boys and girls of the street kept awake for the night in order to keep vigil over Shiva who had drunk poison and was lying
unconscious. On these nights strains of film music came wafting on the breeze while most of the world slept .Sharada prepared tea for all the boys and girls so that they would remain wide awake throughout the night. Having prepared tea she would immediately go off to sleep only to wake up after an hour and resume her vigil. Women worshiped the Goddess of Gauri during Shravan for the welfare of their husbands .The black beads in their luminescent necks shone in wifely pride that their husbands were alive and would live longer than their wives so that the women would die before the husbands .It was the lifetime ambition of these women that they would die before their husbands .The women loved their husbands and obeyed them unquestioningly not because the husbands were so lovable and deserved their love but because that was what their mothers had done in their time .They would get up in the morning and rub their mangalasutras to their eyes in respectful adoration. The wife would gently press the tired feet of the man
who would lie on the cot with his legs stretched so that the wife would do her job unhindered . The husband would growl if the quality of her work was not to his satisfaction .He would sometimes get up and give her a painful blow so that she would do the job better. The wife would take the blow stoically and get on with the work as usual. After half an hour the husband would start snoring and then the wife would get up from the floor stopping her work . She would touch his sleeping feet with her hands and touch her fingers to the eyes praying to God for longevity to her husband so that she would die before him and earn merit for the worlds beyond .
Published on Jun 4, 2009