Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jacko, Me, And Rainbow Maker

He was a freak, just like me. Jacko the gecko. To begin with, he was a vegetarian, the first of his kind I've come across. While his friends and relatives lie in wait for mosquitoes and other insects, he crawls to my kitchen table and helps himself to bits of chappatti dough. Wonder what turned him into a vegetarian! Was it a matter of taste or incapability to catch prey? I saw no sign of physical handicap or deformity on him, but noticed he was very slow in movement. Perhaps that was it. In a world where speed and push is required for success, the likes of Jacko and me stand little chance.

What made him seek me out? Was it some primeval instinct that drew him to a kindred spirit, though of a different species? I imagine him to be the laughing stock of his peers for not being a hunter like them. Just like me again. I'm a flop and failure by most human measurements. I've neither made it as a housewife nor as a career woman. I'm not part of that class of kitchen smart ladies who handle the work so efficiently, making it seem easy. Nor do I fall in with those savvy office or business women. I don't belong. Am a misfit.

However, I'm glad I haven't been stoned to death or burned at the stake as a witch. Such things happened in the past and still happens today, in different forms. The society punishing and persecuting someone who is a bit off beat.

Read George Macdonald’s story 'Purdie and the Princess'? In a village lived an old woman who was considered a witch and treated rather badly. Her fault? She troubled nobody and tried to live within her means! In other words, she was different. Well, being different, for better or worse, can be dangerous.

One day, trying to clean the ceiling , I tied the broom to a long stick. Joking, I told my daughter that I used it to fly on at night, taking Pele (our black cat) with me. She exclaimed "Mamma, people will really think you're a witch. Keeping a long broomstick and having a lizard and black cat for pets." See? Aren't I lucky I haven't been charged and tried?

It's a boost to my self-esteem to have Jacko contentedly eat the dough I kneaded, while it's not that easy to satisfy the rest of the family. Even Pele the cat often curled his nose and walked away in disdain from the fare I lay before him. But Jacko never complained.

Though I chose to call him 'my pet lizard', it was he who took the initiative. He came for his breakfast every morning, but I didn't get to see him rest of the day. And that's why, when we moved house I left him without even saying goodbye. Did he miss me? Did he feel betrayed?

The likes of Jacko and me would've been scrap, losers, were it not for Rainbow Maker, because of whom we survive, even thrive. Once Rainbow Maker takes over, whimpers turn to songs, crawlers grow wings and see rainbow. There's rainbow for Jacko and me.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sumo Sunu

"Shillong, Shillong, Somu, Shillong!" shouted the agent’s hired agent, looking for passengers. Sunu, the driver, stood by the jeep, amused at these boys who would call the vehicle he drives 'somu' instead of 'sumo.' “Perhaps everyone likes changing the names of things, and of people,” he thought. For instance, his own name originally was Sunil. But ever since he could remember he had always been called Sunu. And since he drove a sumo he came to be known as 'Sumo Sunu'.

An elderly couple, the man carrying a suitcase, looked towards the vehicle. “Shillong somu!” cried the young boy in a shrill voice, walking towards them. Then another agent, a tall dark man, went after the couple with a determined air. As if frightened at being chased, they turned and hurried away towards the Transport bus station. Watching this, Sunu could hardly keep from laughing aloud. “You scared the people away!” he said to the agent. “You’re so fearful looking, you shouldn’t have run after them like that.” The other man grinned and gave him a thump on the back.

A group of five foreign tourists approached--one hefty man with fair skin and fizzy hair, a Negro chap in a pony-tail, a tall, fair skinned, fair haired man, a plump, dark haired woman and another woman. On seeing this last person Sunu's heart nearly jumped right out. She was the girl of his dream! He had seen her many times in his imagination--tall, slim, fair, large eyes with thick curly lashes. Only, there were minor differences in details. In his dreams her hair was black and wavy, but was now straight and brown. In his dreams she always wore light pink salwar-kameez, but was now dressed in blue jeans and white T-shirt. In his dreams she spoke Assamese, but not now. But these details did not really matter. He had found her at last! Oh, one thing more--her face had a quality he did not see in his dreams. “Beauty from inside” was all he could think of to describe it.

When the seats filled up they moved. The fat man sat next to him on the front seat and made conversation in English. From the way he spoke Sunu could make out that he was not fluent in English though he himself did not speak the language. "We come from Brazil. We come to see India. India very nice," he said. Sunu smiled and nodded. He wished the man would keep quiet and leave him in peace to concentrate on his dream-girl. She was sitting, he knew, on the far corner seat in the middle row. He must start making plans for their future life together!

Of course, he would take her with him on that tour around the country he planned to make when he gets his own sumo. He would visit the big cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai. He would get to see the sea with the big, foaming waves. He would drive up the high ranges of Ladakh. His heart throbbed as he thought of these. He was sure she would enjoy it all. “And what about Mother?” he thought. “I wonder if she would like to come along. She doesn't seem to like going out anywhere. But I wish she would come.”

He felt a twinge as he thought of his mother, spending all her time in that dingy little house, and waiting up for him every night. Her life revolved around him. She had nothing else to live for, nothing to look forward to except his coming home late in the night. He was usually too tired even to talk to her properly. He would gobble down the food she kept ready for him and then drop down to sleep. Sometimes he would be woken up by the sound of her wheezing, struggling for breath. He would jump up, apply Vicks on her back and neck, rubbing vigorously, while she weakly protested that he should try to get some sleep. Of late this had been growing more frequent. Sunu had been telling himself that he should take her to a doctor.

Mother had brought up Sunu single-handed. She used to work as a part time servant in several houses and sent him to school. He used to be good at studies. He especially loved Social Studies subject. While reading, he would picture different places and people in his mind. His ambition was to get a job that would take him around the world. But then, when he was in the ninth class, his mother became too ill to work. So he dropped out of school and worked at odd jobs to support them both. After some years of working this way, a kind hearted acquaintance gave him free driving lessons, and at the age of twenty Sunu became a sumo driver plying between Guwahati and Shillong. For the last four years, the road between these two cities had been his sole world. He was often seized with a great desire to explore beyond, but this desire was not yet fulfilled. And so.

They had passed the pot-holed, dusty Guwahati road and were moving smoothly on the well maintained Meghalaya road. Sunu loved this stretch. He felt a surge of power as the wheels ate away the smooth black ribbon. He only wished there were less traffic and he could drive faster.

A little boy, just a toddler, suddenly darted on to the road in front of the vehicle. Sunu managed to brake just in time. Had the tier rolled one more round, the child would have been under it. His mother came running behind and caught him. Sunu’s nerves were badly rattled. “You only know how to have children, but don’t know how to take care of them!” he shouted at the woman. He drove on, but his hands shook so badly he had to stop. He parked on the roadside, got down and smoked a cigarette. He was still cursing under his breath.

After another short drive they reached Nongpoh. They stopped for tea at a restaurant. Sunu had his standing in a corner, with sly glances watching his dream-girl as she sat talking with the others in her group. She spoke in some strange language to them, but with the tall man she conversed in beautiful English. The two looked alike, thought Sunu, they must be brother and sister.

All of a sudden, he wondered how it feels to have a brother or sister, or a father. A powerful longing took hold of him. How nice it must be to have a whole family! He and his mother seemed to be all alone in the world. When he was a child he used to ask his mother why he had no father or brothers and sisters or grandparents like some of his friends. She always gave him evasive replies. Then when he turned fourteen, he once demanded to be told about his father. Even then, all he could get out of his mother was – “Your father was from a rich family. He was a good man. But his parents could not accept me.” Then a convulsive sobbing with “O, my son, you are suffering for my sin. I deserve to suffer, but you.....” A few days later she fell seriously ill and he had to leave school. Since then he never questioned her about his father again.

As they entered Mayong, there was a heavy traffic jam. They had to stop still for a long time. The passengers got down, some walked about and others stood by the vehicle. Still others walked a little way and peed on the roadside, facing the bushes. But Sunu kept to his driver’s seat, in case the traffic should move any time. His dream girl was standing in the shade of pine trees on the opposite side of the road.

There was a long line of vehicles in front and behind of Sunu’s sumo. But all had put off their engines, as traffic was completely blocked. It was fairly quiet except for some talking voices. Above these, the musical sound of breeze blowing on pine needles. And then, a little beyond, the clear, sweet call of the cuckoo. Sunu’s heart leaped with delight at the sounds of nature. He was deeply thankful for the traffic jam that has given him a chance to hear the beautiful music, and to look at his dream girl at the same time.

And then some movement began on the road. All drivers started up their engines, all passengers climbed back on the vehicles and the traffic rolled forward, slowly and erratically, moving, stopping, moving again. After about five minutes of going in this way, the sky suddenly darkened and a few big drops of rain fell. Some of Sunus’s passengers got worried about their luggage on the jeep top. So he pulled out a tarpaulin sheet from under his seat while driving with one hand. As the traffic slowed again to a stop, Sunu climbed up and got about throwing the canvas over the baggage. Then the vehicles in front moved, and the vehicle just behind gave a loud honk. So Sunu jumped down back to his seat and drove. After a while a stop again, Sunu climbed up to continue the rain proofing work, then down again. After he had repeated several rounds of the stunt, the task was completed. And the raindrops stopped. Shillong weather has always been uncertain, “like a woman’s mind, always changing,” some guys loved to comment. Not fairly, of course.

The air got colder as they went on. By the time they reached Shillong, the sky was completely covered with dark clouds as if about to rain heavily. But it did not rain. The passengers got down. Then with a pang, Sunu realized that his dream-girl was also walking away, walking out of his life, forever. He wanted to stop her, to call her back. To tell her that her place was by his side, to go on a countrywide tour with him in his sumo. But all he could do was gaze after her in dazed silence. As if understanding his thought she turned back, flashed him a bright smile, waved, and then went on.

That last gesture of recognition affected Sunu strangely. It made him feel loved and cared for. Though his heart still ached at her departure he also felt glad. Glad that he had met her, that she had acknowledged him as a fellow human being. Inexplicably, he felt less alone now. As if he had suddenly got a sister or a brother. “If I at least knew her name,” he thought. “If only I knew English and could speak to her. If only......”

Sunu felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see an elderly bearded gentleman, his passenger of the back-row right corner. He spoke in Assamese. "That was very good driving, fast but smooth except for the jam and all. And the tarpaulin circus was great," he said with a smile. Sunu’s heart danced. He always knew he was a real good driver. But no one, certainly no passenger, had told him so before. He responded with a broad grin. As the man turned to go, he looked at Sunu in the eye and said “God bless you.”

This parting shot startled Sunu. He automatically looked up, as if expecting to see some sign in the sky. There was a small break in the clouds and sunrays filtered through.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fly as Birds

by Sam N Jacob

Sitting on the second floor verandah of the house in Guwahati with its picture post card scenery of the green hills and the river Brahmaputra, one would forget the stench and filth of the garbage down the road.

Mornings, the birds gave us company. Often we were woken up by the call of the Kulis and the melodious singing of other birds. We did not know their names, but they made our lives meaningful in the middle of the busy city.

We would sit riveted at the antics of the birds as they made their morning rounds. The spotted doves fly up in the air and dive back, spreading their beautiful tails as they come for landing on the Neem tree near the house. The starlings and mynahs—brown, speckled, some with yellow eyeliners, some without, brought colour to our monotonous lives as they fought for the leftovers of our pet cat’s food even as he sat at a safe distance and remonstrated. Add to that the yellow birds with black stripes, the kingfishers with the brown neck and sparkling blue wings, the blackbirds, magpies, each with their own flight patterns. Some flapped their wings rapidly; some flapped once and made a dash in the air.

Come late spring and the migratory storks come in hoards and speckle the blue sky white and brown. Many a tree top will be painted white, and so will the roads below. The strangest visitors we had were the black cormorants with their long necks. They came to the eucalyptus trees for collecting green twigs for lining the nests for their little ones. Their arrival heralded the coming of cold season. Then there was the kite that made its nest on top of the banyan tree. But in the middle of all that there were the black bullies of the air, the crows.

After the morning routine with tea mugs on the front verandah, it was time to move to the back, into the kitchen to join my wife as she made roti for breakfast. But the backyard was the abode of smaller birds of various colours. Even Salim Ali’s book on Indian birds did not help in identifying them. We knew only the sparrows as they came into the house and sometimes ended up in our cat’s mouth.

Why were they all there? Were they trying to entertain us? No. They just loved the place allotted to them. They love to be what they are—birds. They were enjoying themselves. Are they teaching us something too?