Esthappan ; the Transcendental and the Mundane

And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. 

Exodus 7:10 and 7:11

 

EsthappanAravindan

‘The Lord works is mysterious ways’, sang the nineteenth century hymnodist William Cowper and the eminent filmmaker of Kerala, Aravindan, was probably aware of those ways. He sculpted his films with the ardency and the ambiguity of a mystic. Esthappan was a crudely made film, encumbered by shoddy production values and the episodic nature of the narration hindered the film’s natural flow. Aravindan cast non-actors in the movie, which is always a risky proposition. Performance of  non- actors might feel ‘natural’ but their inability to emote on screen can work against the characterization of the film. Despite these obvious drawbacks, Esthappan is a work of art that explores spirituality and sainthood in more ways than one. Esthappan is one of most intellectually moving Malayalam films produced.

The setting is a Catholic coastal village in Kerala inhabited by poor fisher folks and Esthappan, the protagonist, is the local weirdo. The movie opens with the scene of Esthappan emerging from the shimmering waters of the ocean, under the setting sun. The scene evokes the Biblical event when Jesus Christ walked on the surface of water and is suggestive of the divine leanings of the character. The fisher folks, mending their nets in the sweltering heat, is not really convinced. The priest at the local church sermonizes to his congregation that as Christians they are expected to earn their livelihood by honest labor as Jesus had done two thousand years ago. But Esthappan does not work, he just wanders around the village swinging the thurible. This contradiction does not escape the villagers and many are suspicious of his putative  sacredness.

Esthappan gets on with his life, sketching biblical scenes on abandoned walls with charcoal stubs and confounding children with cryptic proverbs. He irritates the rich contractor who builds seawalls along the coastline by reciting satirical verses aloud, ostensibly to embarrass him. Lopez, the man who drives the contractor’s truck is not amused by Esthappan’s antics. Aravindan probes into Esthappan’s credibility through many episodes in the film. The viewer has to draw his own conclusions about the nature of the protagonist, whether he is a saint or a charlatan. The filmmaker utilizes nighttime shots to illustrate the idea that sacredness itself is obscure in nature and man has to wade through darkness to comprehend true spirituality.

In one interesting scene, Lopez and his cronies take Esthappan to the priest accusing him of stealing a stalk of bananas. When the priest asks Esthappan to narrate his side of the story, he tells a very strange tale. He says that he was strolling around the beach at night when a thief, chased by a mob,  approached him with a stalk of bananas. The thief appealed for help, lamenting that he was forced to steal the bananas to feed his starving family and if caught, the mob would lynch him. Esthappan, in the dark of the night, purchased the stalk of bananas from the thief and let him run away to safety. Around that time, Lopez and his friends who led the mob, caught Esthappan with the stalk of bananas. The version narrated by Esthappan sounds  like a parable and its authenticity is as good as that of one.

The sexton reports to the priest that he had seen Esthappan hanging around the cemetery at night with a bunch of people. The sexton gives the impression that Esthappan is a graver robber. The same man, when gets drunk at the hooch stall, puts a mysterious spin on the story. The sexton claims that she saw Esthappan capering around the graveyard in the company of awakened dead souls. There are numerous instances in the film where Esthappan is presented as a man inspired by divinity in the Biblical sense. Nevertheless, in all those occurrences, a skeptical viewer has enough reasons to cast doubts on the protagonist’s supposed sainthood.

The film ends on a note that tips the scale in favor of Esthappan, the saint, though not very convincingly. Towards the end of the film, Esthappan goes missing and the rumors of people sighting him at different places at the same time spreads.  On the night of the church fair, performers enact scenes from the Bible in a miracle play, donning glittering costumes. At dawn, Esthappan is seen lying dead on a bed of jagged rocks, accompanied by cycles of crashing sea waves.  Esthappan had to face the truth of death, like all human beings, transcendental or mundane.

Esthappan was adjudged the best film and Aravindan the best director at the Kerala State Film Awards of 1980. The film was and still is maligned as pretentious by most Malayalee film goers. It is also seen as a movie that epitomizes highbrow or arthouse cinematic culture and therefore, thought to be far removed from the sensibilities of the so called common folk. Esthappan might not be for everybody and that can be true for all artistic expressions. But for the people who are willing to put in the effort and be patient, it is a deeply satisfying and rewarding  motion picture experience.

 

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A Song to Hearken to

horseman at night

The Listeners

                           by Walter De La Mare

 

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,

Knocking on the moonlit door;

And his horse in the silence champed the grasses

Of the forest’s ferny floor:

And a bird flew up out of the turret,

Above the Traveller’s head:

And he smote upon the door again a second time;

‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.

But no one descended to the Traveller;

No head from the leaf-fringed sill

Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,

Where he stood perplexed and still.

But only a host of phantom listeners

That dwelt in the lone house then

Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight

To that voice from the world of men:

Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,

That goes down to the empty hall,

Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken

By the lonely Traveller’s call.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,

Their stillness answering his cry,

While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,

’Neath the starred and leafy sky;

For he suddenly smote on the door, even

Louder, and lifted his head:—

‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,

That I kept my word,’ he said.

Never the least stir made the listeners,

Though every word he spake

Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house

From the one man left awake:

Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,

And the sound of iron on stone,

And how the silence surged softly backward,

When the plunging hoofs were gone.

 

The Listeners written by the English poet, Walter de la Mare, can be experienced more like a dreamy scene from a twisted story than like a poem. That does not in any way diminish the verse’s  lyrical elegance.  Under the moonlight, a travelling horseman knocks on a gleaming door and calls out to someone he obviously is acquainted with. His mare shuffles on the forest floor. We can imagine the whole atmosphere. Wild, silent and surreal.

A bird flies over his head and he once again bangs at the door and yells, “Is there anybody there.” And not a soul answers his call. Nobody leans out of the window above to look into his grey eyes ; something he might have expected ‘them’ to do. The disappointment and frustration felt by the traveler leaps out of the page. Nevertheless, the tranquil supernatural  beings dwelling in the forlorn abode was listening to the man during the wee hours of the night. They listen to the voice that journeyed from the world of the traveler, the world of the humans. The moonlight rushes on to the stairs that descends to the empty hall and the otherworldly beings pay attention to the man’s call that stirs the serene atmosphere of the lonely place. The horseman surmises that their silence is a queer response and wonders how bizarre these creatures are, as his mare nibbled at the grass on the ground, beneath the heavens embellished with stars.

The horseman loses his composure for the first time and whacks at the door furiously. He hollers at the beings that he has kept his side of the promise and they ought to know that he had come and nobody attended to him. The poet illuminates that there exists a mysterious pact between the traveler and the weird residents of the house. In spite of the commotion created by the man, the preternatural creatures maintain their quietness and listen to the man’s powerful voice reverberating through the shadow infested house. They hear the clank of the stirrups and the clatter of the hoofs. And silence surges as the sound of the hoofs retreat and the poem winds to a close.

The poem is Walter de la Mare’s most successful work in terms of popularity. He was also a well respected writer of short stories and children’s fiction. The most peculiar aspect of the poem is the nature of the relationship between the traveler and the unusual residents of the house. What kind of pact might have they forged? We can only speculate. I imagine that the horseman and his beloved might have been enslaved by the beings, at an ominous juncture in their blissful life. The beings might have demanded that the horseman carry out certain terrible things ( like digging out corpses from their graves and burning them at stakes ) for them in return for his beloved to be set free. The night of the poem, the horseman might have fulfilled his promise and returns to liberate his beloved. The poor horseman is unaware that his beloved had already been transmuted into a supernatural being akin to the residents of the lonely house. The beloved had already left the confines of human existence and will never return to the embrace of the unfortunate horseman. He has been betrayed by the odious creatures and they are quite happy about it, gleefully listening to the desperate cries of the man.

Another matter to ponder is whether the horseman had a real head sitting on his wide shoulders. Is he the Headless Horseman of the Sleepy Hollow who has come down at night to converse with his masters? But then how does he call out without a tongue and a head to ensconce the tongue in. We can only speculate.

 

 

The Birds will Set the Giant Tree Ablaze-IV (Conclusion)

Dragon fire

(continuation of part III)

The apartment was dark except for the soft light that permeated through the lampshade. I felt spikes getting drilled into my head from all sides as I stepped into the apartment. My gut swirled into a bile soaked paste. Many years later, I would experience the same lagging nausea on arrival at the Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados, after a long and tedious flight in a jetliner. Seeing us, the woman rose to her feet and walked towards the refrigerator that stood in the open plan kitchen. We sat on the couch that was drawn up towards the center of the living room and waited in silence, listening to the out of tune humming of the air conditioner. The woman placed two glasses of water on the side table by the couch and sat opposite to us. She appeared far distant in space as if she was a reflection in the wing mirror of a vehicle.

The walls of the apartment were sullied with crayon drawings that portrayed birds of prey with hooked beaks swooping down on  burning trees. The drawings were visibly the scribbles of a child. I gulped down the water my whole body was craving for and  ignored the disapproving look Ponnan cast at me. He did not dare to touch his glass of water. The woman had a wrinkled face. Wrinkled owing to age in an inscrutable way and due to sorrow in a perceivable  way.  She was not as young as I had imagined. I looked at the woman in her full skirt and long sleeve jumper and she tried to mask the lurking fear with a turgid bleakness.

“I can feel the dark entities rolling around this apartment. They cannot hurt you. As they are mere weaklings, capable of nothing but innocuous mischief. I will chase them away as effortlessly as I would pluck a flower from my garden.”, Ponnan said and he pulled out half a dozen candles from the pocket of his overcoat. He slid the side table towards him and began to light the candles.

“The child pesters me with wicked drawings. And keeps on whispering about the birds setting the giant tree on fire”, the woman said with a quavering voice and her distressing sound came from afar as though it popped out of a different world. There was no faulty telephone connection to blame. I thought of the last occasion I had felt so dreamy. So illusory. There were times in life when everything reasonable fell out of the window in slow time. Moments like you got out of the cab at the porch of a bar along the road. You had been there before, the olive green paint of the porch bouncing back on you in the flood of the halogen light. But no freaking idea when. You remembered the paint and the light and the tarmac and the scrunchy face of the cab driver an instant before he drove away. Everything so familiar and up close. Though deep inside you know the impression is false like a picture on an IMAX screen.

Ponnan arranged the lit candles on the table and closed his eyes, mumbling to himself. Sweat droplets clustered on his forehead behind the curls of the wig dropping on to his brows. I started to hear the voices and sensed that Ponnan began to get it too. They came form below in Arabic, French and Berber and I heard Egyptian film songs and Dabke music. Cheers of people watching Germany playing Scotland in UEFA Euro 1992. I used  my limited linguistic understanding to make out that the voices were of customers frolicking in the cafe downstairs. From the deserted cafe where the water pipes rusted away and shattered furniture were heaped into dusty piles. The voices jolted me out of drowsiness and unreality was closing in on me.

“The boy is so wild and mean. He toys with the mirrors and twists the images into horrifying shapes. Oh God. Its so awful. And why I feel this is the summer of 1992.”, she said with a sniffling snob.

“No Ma’am. It is indeed 1992.”, I said

“It is not. It is.. I do not know… because the kid was tightening the thumbscrew on me and could not stand it. I burned the TV and the mirrors and flung him over that balcony down there.”, she said and the jerky voice reached me after traveling miles through the air. I wanted to stick my arms out and check how far she was seated away from me. Ponnan shivered and panted like a rabid street dog.

“But he was my boy. My sweet boy.”, said the woman and ruptured into fits of hysterical bawl. She rushed forward from her seat and dashed towards the balcony, knocking down the side table and the candles. The woman leaped over the balustrade, her full skirt blowing up in the air. We ran towards the balcony, bent over the railings and saw the woman motionless in a pool of blood. Very still. A few yards aside, there lay a shriveled corpse of a child drenched in a dark splash of blood, at exactly the same spot I had seen the quivering shadow under the wash of orange light.

We barreled out of the apartment, flew down the stairs and parted ways out of the lobby. Ponnan scurried towards the cab and I raced on foot towards the lonely highway. While clearing out, on the cracked window of the cafe, below the torn awning I saw the reflection of a man like he was straight of the coffin. White as dead.

Nine months past the conclusion of the Millennium Year, I was recuperating in Changanassery, from the brain surgery that had removed a chunk of malignant tumor from my swollen head. My wife had left me after years of bickering and hollering. She married a widowed doctor and migrated to Australia. I checked in the mirror and confirmed years of suspicion. I looked like the apparition that was on the window of the cafe that accursed night. The Red Rain of Kerala pattered on the casement and crimson water ran in rivulets down the eaves. The plantain leaves swaying in the breeze, goats grazing at the meadow and the school children sauntering back home, all bathed in the mysterious red deluge. The fruit squash waters that flooded the streets drained into canals and brooks, reddening them.

I received an email from Ponnan with a photo of his and a scanned newspaper clip hardly a week old then. He looked the same after all these years of travails. The clip contained the story of a mentally unstable woman who committed suicide by cracking her skull wide open jumping down from the fourth floor balcony. The news item came from the North African city I had left behind, scarred. Before killing herself, she had murdered her son by pushing him down from the same balcony. Police reported that she was annoyed by the pictures scribbled by the child on the walls of the apartment. And the child had squirmed in a sludge of warm blood for a long time before life leaked out of his body, they suspected.

The Birds will Set the Giant Tree Ablaze.

That Tuesday evening, on the eleventh of September 2001, I saw something bizarre on TV. Stranger than anything I ever saw in my life. The odd episodes at that gloomy apartment included.

(Concluded.)

 

 

 

 

The Birds will Set the Giant Tree Ablaze-III

burning bush

(continuation of part II)

Ponnan sprang up and reached for the phone. The whisky had blurred my vision and soft sparks were flying around and stinging my head. Ponnan was animated when he spoke on the phone and he put it on speaker mode. I heard the sound of a young woman ranting about dates, time, the voices and a child who messed with the wall clocks and the desk calendars. I could not make out the specifics but she was scared of a persistent viciousness, hot on her heels. She screeched pleading for help and her sound  was transmitted from a fathomless pit and voyaged through a deep tunnel.It might have been due to the faulty line. Ponnan hung up and seemed pleased with himself.

“Hey poet. You said you were an actor. Right?”, Ponnan said. I wanted to spell out my exploits on the stage but booze and modesty restrained me. Ponnan was not interested in my response though. He donned an ill fitting  box coat that he had pulled out from a trunk stored beneath the bed and put on his funny wig, fake goatee beard and handle bar mustache. He ferreted out the ignition key of the cab from the front hip pocket of the dead-asleep Aleishu and motioned me to follow him outdoors.

Grainy images of my life unreeled inside my head, the happy childhood edited out. How I reached the point where I escorted a crook in a cheesy disguise, at the wee hours of an empty night. In a foreign land, my life of great promise cracked behind my ears.I did not believe a single word of his hair-in -the-tank fabrication. But the balding pig worked a sinister magic that tamed your subconsciousness. Induced you to act in ways he desired but in a subtle manner. Ponnan stood by the fender of the car, swamped in a wet aura, gestured at me to get into the vehicle and the next moment we were driving away. Drifting in and out of wakefulness, I wondered if the guy seated next to me behind the wheel, was a charlatan or a dark saint. Were all these musings, the ramifications of the whiskey drenched revelry.

“The woman is a loony and has a fraud for a husband. He ended up behind bars for stealing cash from the widow he was sleeping with.”, Ponnan said, stepping hard on the pedal.

The battered car cruised over the deserted highway, sweeping over the center line and farted a trail of blue smoke. The water jet nozzle was broken and the swinging wiper blades smeared the windscreen with a clammy mix of dirt, moisture and diesel exhaust.

“And the child”, I asked.

“Yeah. She receives frequent visitations in the form a boy child. It fiddles with the clocks, mirrors and calendars and pesters her to the point of driving her mad. But the female is  crazy to start with and she can utter all the hogwash you have heard in your worthless life . The woman has cash and that is the thing that matters to us.. The bitch has got a cool one thousand dollars on her.”

“A thousand dollars.”, I said and Ponnan nodded, a faint smile dangling on his lips.

The reference to money reminded me of Shruthi. She would grumble about my drinking and fume over my irresponsible behavior. Irresponsible behavior. I would not be enslaved by her arrogance. A type of annoying arrogance women developed when they started to earn. An artist demanded liberty and respect and awe. My wife required to be corrected on a regular basis so that she remembered. The last time she forgot, I had to correct her by smashing her fake emerald earring along with the eardrum.

“The female lives in an isolated apartment building on this highway, past the windmill farm. She says there is a cafe on the ground floor of the building.”, Ponnan said

“I know the place and the cafe is a happening spot. It is a popular hookah bar in the desert.”, I said

“That is really cool”, Ponnan said and shifted the gears as the vehicle climbed uphill. The air outside was still sauna humid. We passed the windmill farm and the building appeared up-slope, standing opposite to a rock slide. The singular thing that struck me was the odd presence of the rocky mass that was not so apparent when I had visited the area on the previous occasion. The car smoothed into a pale cloud of fog. Ponnan brought the vehicle to a halt under the looming shadow of the building. We exited the car and the air was cold and dense. The gummy darkness of the night kept close and the faint smell of gasoline lingered in the air.

The cafe wore an abandoned look and its neon signboard appeared broken and was about to fall apart. The batwing doors had been ripped off the hinges and the tarnished water pipes rusted away. I wondered what had happened to a roaring entertainment center in a matter of months. A flickering light emanated from a bulb inside the lobby. We inched towards the building. The structure felt ancient and flakes of paint peeled off from the walls. The reinforcing steel bars were visible through the cracks under the ceiling of the lobby. Ponnan stopped at the wide stairs that led to the lobby. He looked older in the cheap box coat and all that fake hair. Ponnan perspired profusely and his limbs trembled. He turned back, looked out into the car park and his eyes puffed up.

“Can you see anything over there at the far end of the car park”, he said.

I looked deep into the car park and saw a shadow quivering in a slush of orange light cast by a vapor lamp.

“Shadows. Nothing else”, I said.

“Hmm. Do you see someone crawling in a pool of blood. Writhing in pain.”, he said

My heart slammed against my chest cavity and the hair on my nape bristled. Ponnan stood there, pallid and washed out. So washed out that I could almost see through him. I stepped towards the direction of the car park and Ponnan pulled me back.

“Certain things are too dangerous to be real”, he said. I could not trust him. Those were the antics of an experienced trickster who had practiced his craft, who had done his homework. Ponnan dashed through the lobby and ascended the stairs to the apartments, taking quick and uneasy strides.The handrails creaked and a draft a cold air blasted through the stairwell. None of the apartments had numbers or name boards. We reached the fourth floor, hyperventilating and turned right into an apartment whose door was marked with a broken cross. Ponnan tried the knob and we barged into the apartment. A woman sat by the dim light of a shaded floor lamp.

(to be continued..)

 

The Birds will Set the Giant Tree Ablaze-II

man in fog

(Continuation of Part I)

The car wormed through the eastern district of the city where imposing edifices and parks with fountains gave way to dilapidated residential buildings and sidewalks crowded with jostling hawkers. Kids wearing grimy gandouras played soccer beside rickety butcher stalls surrounded by salivating mongrels that snapped at each other.

“Gosh, is he a real psychic? Does he have the powers to get in touch with the dead?”, I said

“Who cares. He makes his dough though. Heard he is building a shopping plaza in Kerala”, Aleishu said

“Oh God. That kind of money he makes.”, I said

“You have no idea of the kind of opportunity in his field. eh..Our people come here, work like dogs and no job security. On top of that relatives suck them dry. Uncle wants a watch. That too Rado. Jackass nephew wants a Ray-Ban to impress his cross-eyed girlfriend and what not. People go crazy and that is where Ponnan comes into the picture. He gives solutions.”

“What solutions?”, I said

“He is kinda medium. He connects his customers to their granddad rotting in the grave. He jabbers some crap in Swahili or Pushto. That means wise counsels from the decaying old chap and boom. The customers are happy and cash in dollars or francs. No job is easy though.eh.. Got to have the skill set “, said Aleishu.

Aleishu turned the wheel sharply and the car skidded into a dirt road that ran along the high walls of the sewage treatment plant. The stench of sewage shot through with smoky effluvia seeped through the gaps of the car window. The road was chocked with  overloaded dumpster trucks and worn out pickup vans. The car crawled behind the trucks as dusk fell and Aleishu parked the car ahead of  a run-down building whose exterior paint had mostly peeled off. We jumped out of the car and the sweltering air outside tasted like dust. Aleishu led me to a studio apartment lodged inside the crumbling building.

We were welcomed by Ponnan, a short-statured man who stood naked except for a bath towel draped around his waist. He looked around forty, had hunched shoulders and a receding hairline. The dingy apartment, more of a single room hovel, accommodated a  bed that sagged in the middle, a three legged coffee table, a couple of aluminium chairs and a black and white TV mounted on a stand at the corner. Braided wigs and fake beards and mustaches lay scattered on the bed. Shoddy books on astrology, hypnotism, parapsychology and palmistry along with almanacs and porn magazines – all printed on newsprint- were strewn around. A liter bottle of cheap whisky, a pitcher of drinking water and few tumblers kept rim down were laid out on the laminated surface of the coffee table.

“Brother, see if this man is good for you. Honest, hardworking and he is a poet.”, Aleishu said to Ponnan while pouring out the whiskey into the glasses. Ponnan was dialing  somebody on his cordless phone but his frustration indicated that he could not get connected.

“Not a poet. I am a writer, working on a memoir.”, I said

“Whatever. Its the same thing.” Aleishu said, handing the shot of whiskey to me.

Ponnan tossed a packet of Benson & Hedges on to the cofee table and gulped down his drink. I slid a cigarette out of the pack, lit it and enjoyed the taste of quality tobacco that was too expensive for my pockets.

“Brother, I have imagination. Am a creator and a gifted actor. Give me a chance. Take me with you. And see how the business is gonna boom.”, I said

Ponnan’s owl eyes flared with despise and he poured another drink down his throat and wiped his lips with a wild swing of his forearms.

“You educated smart-arse. Whom do you think I am? Some swindler hunting for a stupid sidekick? You think this a funny movie or something.”, Ponnan said.

I was taken aback by the reaction and it reaffirmed my notion that men from aristocratic backgrounds should never ever hang around with lowlifes such as these. Aleishu intervened.

“Brother, our man went slightly overboard. The alcohol might have got to his head. He never meant it that way.”

“Yes. I apologize Brother. Everything  suddenly got mixed up in my head.”, I said

“Listen you bloody poet. My job is all about meditative powers. You should be born with a special kind of gift to communicate with the world of the dead”. Ponnan said

“Brother Ponnan, how did you achieve such great powers. Were you a child prodigy ?”, I said and waited for the thug to lie through his teeth with his vile tongue. He was enveloped in a cloud of smoke and his eyelids began to droop due to the effect of the spirit.

“I was born into a family of sorcerers. My great granduncle was the court sorcerer at the House of Chempakasseri. The day I was born, our neighbor’s cow died. Bitten by a snake. My old woman said it was an omen. The child will grow into a master of the dark arts, she said. The real moment came when I was in my late teens. The vision.”

Ponnan swayed on the chair, dialed furiously on the phone and then pressed his ears to the receiver, expecting someone at the other end to pick up. He grimaced in disappointment and flung the phone towards the bed.

Ponnan continued, “The annual fair at the temple of our goddess of Parappanakunnu. The goddess whose fiery temper the world could barely withstand. On the same day, my friend had invited me to a wedding at a town, a few miles down the highway. When I set out to the town in the morning, my old woman swore at me, You son of a festering cripple, today is the day of your goddess mother and to which goddamn hell are you rushing to. I spat at her and took the next bus to the town. The wedding celebration was rollicking stuff and we had sweet country arrack along with fried veal. It was dark when I was back in the village and while hurrying towards home, a crackling dryness gripped my throat. It might have been the liquor or the grueling bus journey, I didn’t know. How I needed a sip of water and I looked around. And there I was near the temple tank of the goddess of Parappanakunnu, burbling with pristine water. Her shrine, on the other side of the tank, was a lambent abode in the darkness.”

Aleishu had dozed off, sprawled in his chair before his glass of unfinished whiskey. The gusting of the wind outdoors and the tired rumble of an engine could be heard, coming to us traversing huge distances. Silence encapsulated the whole room except for the swish of the smoke whirling out of Ponnan’s mouth.

“I descended the steps of the tank to reach the waters when a stinging current drifted through my torso. The reflection of a girl flitted away across the surface of the water. Or through my mind. But it was a girl, I was sure. I thought of turning back but I was rendered incapacitated. The only way I could move was forwards and downwards. Towards the water. So soft and enticing. I reached out to the water and dipped my hands into it. Hair. Scale dry strands of hair wriggled in my hands. The whole tank was stuffed with long filaments of hair in place of water and the hairy mass waved gently in the wind. I looked out to the center of the tank and saw a mound or a huge human head from the crown of which the strands of hair spewed. Like out of a sick volcano. The face, if it had any, was turned towards the shrine of the goddess. I wheeled around with all the strength I could muster and ran home, shrieking and howling like a screwed up lunatic. Reaching home, I dived into my bed and stayed put for weeks. Red hot fever seared my whole being. That was my blood initiation. Since then I am welded to the dark world beyond.”

The phone rang.

(to be continued…)

 

 

The Birds will Set the Giant Tree Ablaze- I

Fire dance

All the nurses had husbands. A few of the men were college educated. Most were high school drop outs. The key difference was that the educated ones fretted over the choices they never really had. The hospital was one of the largest in North Africa, had a thousand beds and reeked of phenol. The doctors were Egyptians and Iraqis and the institution boasted a few French specialists. The nurses came from the Indian state of Kerala and the men accompanied their wives. Piggybacked. They migrated to the city, in droves, from Kuwait at the outbreak of the First Gulf War. I arrived with my wife Shruthi during the same tumultuous times ,though not fleeing from the war. We had watched the Hindi flick ‘Shola Aur Shabnam’, making out in a desolate cinema hall in Kochi, a few weeks prior to our engagement. We got married, as the folks say, on an auspicious occasion with the full blessings of our families before flying down to the city situated by the Mediterranean. Those days, as all the old days, were good.

Things got depressing a year after we had settled down, especially when she worked the day shifts at the hospital.  I killed time at home thinking of my stalled memoir and the kind of artistic glory I would have attained owing to my graduate education and rare innate potential.  If only I had the wisdom to stay back. If only I had not succumbed to the lure of the imperialistic dollar.

I tried to keep away from the idlers and country bumpkins her coworkers paraded around as husbands- tagged and duly attested. It was a matter of common knowledge, in the community, that many got hitched after the hags were knocked up clean. I had genuine sympathies for the people who never had the ancestry behind them to hold the horses until the wedding night. There was nothing like an almost aristocratic gene like there was nothing like an almost cancerous tumor and that was the plainest truth. You either had it or you didn’t.

The archetypal nurse’s hubby would first open a small business that had ‘crash’ stamped on its feasibility study report, if it ever had one. The activity would be one among the wholesale trade of Indian pickles, scrap dealership, used car sales and pest control services. The business would shut shop within months, as destined. They would blame economic downturn, competition from counterfeiters  or Eskimo revolt in Greenland for the losses and get into the vocation of cab driving. In the aftermath of accidents, hefty fines and charges of  drunken driving, the guys would sell off the cab and take to full time drinking. Some proceeded directly to full time drinking. But Ponnan did something fresh and innovative.

On the day I first encountered Ponnan, I hung around the hospital because I wanted to meet Shruthi, badly. I was dead broke, needed urgent cash and she was stuck in the operating theater for hours on end. The receptionist turned me down repeatedly  and her scowled expression did not seem too encouraging. Dejected, I strolled towards the main egress through alleys splattered with water leaking from air conditioners jutting out of  whitewashed portacabins.  The North African summer was at its peak and the sun beat down on the ground with ferocity.

A ramshackle taxi cab, seventies model Toyota Cressida, pulled over in front of me and Aleishu stuck his head out of the driver’s window. The glare radiating from the hood of the vehicle stung my eyes.

“Thrivikraman, wanna lift back to your apartment? eh..I am off towards that direction”

The last time I had seen Aleishu, he ran a pineapple jam import business. And that was two months back. I got into the passenger seat and the car hurtled into the main road.

“How is your jam import stuff doing”, I said

The car stank of chewing tobacco and sand. Aleishu drove through busy public streets lined with colonial era buildings. His graying hair flopped over his forehead and he slid it up at regular intervals.

“No good. Put up the shutters last month. Supply disruptions because of union problems in Kerala. You know, our people back home will never make a headway.”

I remembered Shruthi chatting with a friend of hers on phone about Aleishu splurging on the Nigerian girl who helped him keep books at the jam store.

“You have some cash on you. How about a drink or two.”, I said.

Aleishu’s face brightened and he grinned, displaying his decayed dental structure.

“You know Ponnan? eh. The guy who lives with Lillykutty, that buxom chic.”, he said.

“Is she married?”.

“Yes married. But not to him. That naive fella lives with the kids in Kerala. Ponnan and she are a, what you call around here, duplicate family. He gets a roof over his head and she gets what she really wants.” Aleishu said with a wink.

“He has a place close to the sewage treatment plant at Al Wadi. It is a shack but good enough for us. He had asked to drop by for a few shots. Mmm. Okay. He will be happy to meet you. Actually he is looking for someone like you to assist him”

“But why me…What is his line of business?”. I was perplexed by the sudden turn of events.

Aleishu rolled down the window and spat. A blast of hot air rushed into the vehicle.

“He is a psychic.”

(to be continued…)

 

 

Hepatitis – IV (conclusion)

 

dog at night

(continuation of Hepatitis III)

Uma parked the car next to Orabi’s 4WD and looked at our building that stood against the moonless sky. The old timer who stayed at the third floor tended his potted plants at the balcony. Vanessa, who lost her dog, sat on the hood of her car and puffed smoke rings into the air. I expected her to carry around a teddy bear in place of her pet – but no teddy. A mellifluous call of prayer came in from the nearby mosque as Uma went into our apartment. I hung around the car park. Vanessa was a middle aged woman, tall and bonny, with dyed hair and thick eyebrows. The type of woman whom you saw kayaking  on Nat Geo TV. She needed someone to talk to about the missing Kim, I felt. I glanced at the big window in our living room and Uma was not there, standing and watching the stars stuck in the skies.

I tiptoed across the car park and revealed myself to her and for a moment I was not some random guy infested with Hepatitis.

“ Any news of Kim”

She shook her head and a shadow of despondency fleeted across her face. Her feet shoed in a pair of strappy sandals rested amongst a collection of stomped out cigarette butts. She smelled of sweat and nicotine charged smoke.

“ I always knew something like this would happen to him…ultimately”, she said

“ I knew he would just go off someday looking for a female. You know dogs are smart creatures and that is how they are. There are stray dogs in Russia that have learned to commute by the subway. Can you believe that”, she said.

“ Kim was a dim witted kid. Not smart enough”, she continued,ready to weep

“ Why do you say that”, I said.

She lit a new cigarette and looked at me and wiped away the tears that glided down her cheeks.  Reflection of a burning outrage flamed in her eyes.

“ Not as smart as them stray son-of-a-bitches wandering around here. They set a trap. They might have used a female to lure him into a hole in the mountains and might have shredded my baby into pieces and eaten him with the bone”

She bid me good night and I hoped  that she would in the not so distant future invite me to coffee or better champagne, when my billirubin would be negative and Uma enjoying with the kids in Kerala. I went to sleep on the couch by the big window that was left open.

I dreamed and knew in the sleep that it was a dream. I dreamed of cold beer flowing down my throat, stinging the inside walls as it streamed into my stomach. I dreamed of Kim and I knew in the sleep that he was already dead. Kim was led by a fluffy female dog with a pink collar along a steep track between the hills. The pair descended into a pit. When Kim advanced to make love to the fluffy female, the pack marshaled by Purple Scar swarmed into the pit. And the pack jumped on to Kim and started to tear off his shiny coat and that was when the feral donkey leapt into the hole from somewhere like an apparition. The donkey head butted and kicked the pack dogs and chased them away from Kim and it charged at Purple Scar. The lead dog gave out a vicious growl. But the growl was not in the dream- it was real, coming from the open window behind me.

The dog stood at the ledge by the window, looking at me . His image vaguely appeared in the dark, on the glass partition that divided our living room. The rhythm of the air gushing out of his lungs played on the surface of my nape.  The doggy odor and the droning growl enveloped my senses. I  could hardly  move. My body was numb with fear. I wanted to stop thinking about the dog. I thought of Gopan Kochettan instead, who had said while teaching me to ride a bicycle, that dogs had the ability to read our mind and to foretell death. I wondered whether Purple Scar had come looking for me because of the dream.

The screech came before the light flooded the room. Uma stood in the centre of the room, pale with fear and screamed at the dog by the window. The dog leapt from the ledge onto the hood of Orabi’s SUV in the parking lot and from there to the ground. He then loped towards the flatland into the darkness and was gone.

It was bad  I could not capture the whole series of scenes, including the dream, on camera. There was no spunk left in my life. Vanessa neither invited me to coffee nor  made any attempt to draw my attention.But I was ready to take a resolute step and give it an earnest try. If Uma found out, she would deduce that I had got the Hepatitis from some place other than the clinic or the barber shop. The guilty part that came back to haunt me. I cared for her illogical deductions. I wished things were not that way.

Wandered around the place for many days with my camera, anticipating a unique angle  or some interesting action from the world around me. Nothing came my way. A dog, decrepit and wounded, sniffed around the makeshift court. It found the  detached net, carelessly rolled and heaped, interesting. The edges of the net, that lay by the sidelines, were stained with russet blots. The stains looked like blood to me. Tomato ketchup would have looked like blood to me at that juncture.

The dog pack was decreasing in strength. My hunch was that they were dying of hunger and heat. Or they were eating each other- turned cannibals. Or the whole species was hunted down by a doggy apocalypse, ravaging tribe after tribe, wiping the whole species from the face of the earth. I wondered if a dog seed would be carried off to an alien planet by a spacecraft. And a new species of dogs would arise- alien dogs.

I regained the lucidity to think and realized how mundane life was. The hollowness, without variety and action, exasperated me.

Dogs too have good times and bad times. Same like humans

I saw Vanessa’s car approaching in the hot sun. I wanted to remind her that I was alive and hurried to the car park through the lobby. Shoukath’s wife was waiting for her daughter to arrive from school in the lobby. The heat rushed into the lobby from the desert and Shoukath’s wife shielded herself from the heat with a shawl. The school bus drove into the car park and the kid jumped out of the bus, with zest. She held a kite in one hand and clutched a hot dog roll with the other. Her mother stepped out of the lobby to receive her. A gust of wind blew across that swept away the kite towards the flatland.

The kid darted into the sand chasing the kite and she firmly held on to the sandwich roll. And then, she came face to face with the pack that rushed towards her, eyeing the meaty roll. The pack, emaciated and bonny, faced  her with avaricious eyes and drooling mouths. Purple Scar stood at the front planning the first move. The snarling pack surrounded the kid and she gasped  and wailed and staggered around looking for help. Her mother screamed her lungs out and lurched forward and her shawl flew off in the wind. I stood at the edge of the car park, confused and edgy. The pain in my abdomen returned and tore through my body and gave me shivers. My legs became soft like dough.

One young pup- some kind of a Dalmation – tired of the wait, lunged towards the kid, yanked at her pinafore and scrambled to snatch the roll. The kid shrieked with horror and the pack stampeded around her, dizzy with excitement. The mother stumbled on the ground a few paces away from the scene and bawled in terror.

A Volvo sedan crashed into the pack, sending some dogs flying into the air and crushing  others under the wheels. Purple Scar went vertically up and landed on his neck, breaking it. The remaining ones fled the scene shocked by the onslaught. The kid ran to her mother who hugged her with all her strength and wept along with her.

Vanessa got out of the sedan and looked at the blood bath that resembled a sacrificial ground. Smashed skulls, mutilated bodies and crushed bones received her. The body of Purple Scar was bogged in the sand. Vanessa stood there in meditative silence, appalled. A blast of sand infused wind sprayed grains into her eyes, nose, ears and mouth. She chocked like any other human, like any other animal.

An army of bureaucrats from police, local body, health, animal welfare, fire and rescue departments swarmed into Jabal Jadeed the next day flashing beacon lights. They talked to Vanessa, Azeez and Shoukath and took stock of the situation. All the remaining stray animals were caught and carted off to animal shelters. The Fine Malabar Grocery and The Fine Malabar Café and Grill were both shut down. It seemed that both operated without proper licensing.

A few weeks later, I ran into Azeez at the car park.

“ Boss, did you here of a restaurant that was caught selling dog meat and cat meat .Those creeps were trapping animals with a net it looks.”

“ Really …Is it true”, I said

“ It came in Whatsapp and also in Facebook”

Azeez and I looked across the flatland at the now closed down shutters of the Fine Malabar Café and Grill.

“ Khair…these are rumours after all”, Azeez said.

“ Yes”, I said and ran to the washroom to throw up.

(concluded)