Thursday, May 30, 2019

A King whose Life was in a Parrot


A King whose Life was in a Parrot


Shobha Nani was dead. But only Chintu knew that she was actually not. She was inside the old rusted iron trunk under her bed. He knew that because Nani had told him that herself. Not directly, but through a story. That was how Nani used to explain him the things which were little complicated for his nine-year-old mind. On one summer vacation in the past when he had visited Nani’s house in the village, a time when it had rained just ridiculously and he was bored to death, he had suddenly noticed this trunk in Nani’s room.

It was one of those things that are always around you but you never really see them until one day they suddenly come into existence. It was an ordinary looking trunk but it was locked with a heavy lock. Now, that got Chintu hooked. He asked Nani to show him what was inside it but Nani got suddenly very angry. Which piqued his interest even more. So he attempted a couple of break-ins into her room but was caught every single time. Sensing that Chintu won’t give up, Nani finally decided to tell him what was inside it, on the promise that he wouldn’t open it. Chintu agreed.

‘My Life,’ she whispered in his ear. Chintu didn’t quite understand what she meant, so she explained him with a story.

‘There was once a King whose life was in a parrot. One day someone killed the parrot and the King died.’

‘We can place our life into Parrots!’ Chintu had asked excitedly and wondered what all things a life can be kept into. Nani replied that only very few people had the magical ability to do that and if he behaves she might teach him as well. Since she was not as stupid as the king, she had hidden the object that had her life inside this magical trunk, so that nobody could make a guess of what it is.

‘But this trunk looks very ordinary,’ Chintu had said.

‘What is apparent, may not be the truth,’ she had responded with wary eyes.

Chintu was much honored that Nani had entrusted him, the youngest member of the third generation of their family, with such a big secret which obviously no one knew. He had since then protected the trunk from his other cousins who would often plot to open it. But up until now, no one was able to get hold of Nani’s life in that trunk. And as far as he knew, it was still there. All he had to do now was to open that trunk and get Nani’s life out of it.

******

It was night by the time Chintu reached Nani’s village. The winter fog had settled on the fields like a white sea which shimmered under the silver moon. Even with all the lights of the house lit, it looked haunted without the throaty voice of Nani that usually welcomed them at the gate.

Most of the relatives had already reached and were spreading out mattresses on the cold granite floor of the living area. Some helped to move Nani’s stuff to the top floor to make more space. Since the village had no morgue, the local lady who handled funeral suggested to shift Nani’s body in the outside room and be placed on a block of ice until the next morning.

‘I’ll come early and dress her up. Do you have anything in mind?’ she asked.

‘Do as per Brahmin rituals. She wouldn’t have liked any other way.’ Nani’s son, Manoj replied.

The lady nodded and took out a box of sweets ‘This is from Jenny. She said Shobha taught her how to make them’.

‘Jenny who?’

‘She sings in the church choir. She said she was a friend of Shobha and wanted to ask if she could come to the funeral’.

Manoj scoffed ‘Friend huh!’ He thought for a moment ‘Tell her we will distribute free food at some places after the funeral. She can pay her homage there.’

The lady nodded and handed him the box of sweet. Manoj waited till she was gone and threw the box outside in the bin and washed his hands. The kids inside the house were fussing over the sleeping arrangement. After a lot of hue and cry, kids were finally put to sleep in one bedroom, while elders of the family gathered in the kitchen table to decide on the details of the ceremony.

Karva, Shobha Nani’s first granddaughter stood in the corner of the kitchen, away from everyone, but they could still smell the cigarette on her. It was one of the reasons Manoj hadn’t acknowledged the arrival of her daughter yet. Not that they were bound to do that in some way. They didn’t get along for the reasons many kids don’t get along with their parents. Their views of the world were as far apart as their ages and none of them seemed too eager to cross that distance. The relation worked on a fine thread of formality. No one complained and no one apologized. So they both co-existed in that room even as everyone wriggled their noses.

‘How many pundits are we calling?’ One of the relatives asked Manoj as he entered the kitchen. Manoj furrowed his brows thoughtfully. Since Nani died after seeing her grandson’s face she would be going to heaven on a golden ladder. An achievement not easily earned. Hence the ceremony had to be of grand scale as per proper Brahmin style.

‘Ten pundits should be good. She should not think we are not happy for her’ he said.

‘She won’t think anything. She is dead,’ Karva said but the discussion had already moved on to the number of dishes that would be served in the ceremony.

‘We should serve Shobha’s favorite dish,’ one of the relatives suggested.

‘What was it?’ someone asked.

‘Moong Kichdi,’ Manoj replied.

‘That was your favorite dish, not hers,’ Karva stared at the wall.

‘I think it was Rajma…. Isn’t it?’ one of the Aunts guessed.

‘Nani once said it tasted like chicken’ Karva said and got few stern stares from others. Manoj clutched his jaw and but did not responded to her. He knew what Karva was talking about. It was a long time ago when Karva was still a child. Some of her school friends had invited her for Ramzan celebration. When Manoj got to know that she had been inside the meat eater’s house, he had belted her and thrown her outside the house.

A pundit was called the other day for her Shudhi after which she was allowed to eat something. But Karva did not eat a single morsel. She insisted that she would eat only chicken. 
Manoj wanted to smack out the rebel in her daughter right then, but Shobha Nani stopped him. She made Rajma and said to Karva lovingly that it tasted just like Chicken she wanted.

‘How do you know what Chicken tastes like Nani?’ Karva had taunted her but the mood was eased and Karva ate food. Had it been anyone else saying such things Shobha Nani would have thrown her out. But not her dear Karva.

‘I think she would like to have Kichdi,’Manoj said and everyone moved ahead to decide how much alms needed to be distributed.

‘I think hundred and one blankets should be good. I’ll ask temple Priest to distribute it to the poor outside the temple,’ Manoj said.

‘I would like to distribute some outside the mosque from her side,’ Karva said. Everyone looked at Manoj expectedly.

‘You can do whatever you want with your money.’

‘I want to do it in her name.’

‘Your Nani would not have liked what you are doing,’ Manoj said looking at the table in front of him.

‘She wouldn’t mind,’ Karva replied ‘One day she had taken me to market and asked one of the shopkeepers to distribute sweets to the poor kids outside the mosque’

‘Have the poor in our community all died that she would go spending money on others’ One of Karva’s Aunt snubbed.
‘Define others,’ Karva asked.
‘This is not your personal function where you do things to appease your husband,’ an acidic response came from someone.

‘Who are you appeasing right now?’ Karva asked with a smile.

‘You can do what you want,’ Manoj replied as calmly as he could‘Don’t drag your Nani’s Brahmin name into all this.’

‘Fine’ Karva said ‘Kuresh will reach here tomorrow morning. We will distribute outside the mosque after Nani’s funeral’

The room descended into strained silence.

Manoj turned to look at Karva ‘He cannot come in the funeral.’

‘He is my husband.’

‘A Muslim cannot enter my mother’s house’

‘Last year a Muslim came,’ Karva said stubbornly.

‘Don’t lie for the sake of it,’One of her aunts gave her a despised look.

‘Last year Chintu had burned the ankle of a Muslim kid on the road while bursting Diwali crackers. Nani had got him inside to give bandages.’

‘That was differnt. She was old. Did not know what she was doing,’ Manoj justified.

‘I think she did,’ Karva said.

Manoj knew this was coming. In the past, they have restrained away from such futile arguments. The arguments that were done to make a point, not peace. But the restraint only worked if they did not acknowledge each other, and now that spell was broken as they stared at each other. There was no backing away from this now. If Manoj had to stand up to her stubborn daughter for her dear mother, so be it. Although Manoj partly blamed his own mother for it. It was Nani who had spoiled Karva. Maybe things would not have been as worse as they are now if Nani had stopped Karva from going abroad to study.

‘Her mind will be corrupted. She will become a firangni mem,’ Relatives had speculated. Manoj had threatened to pull off all financial aid from her but that did not dither Karva.

‘I’ll pick up some job then,’ Karva shrugged and had started packing. But Nani could not see her dear granddaughter struggle on the cold streets in a foreign land, so she decided to pay for her studies. Touched by this, Karva had touched Nani’s feet and promised her that she will not forgo her religion or culture ever.
Nani had just smiled and said ‘One can survive the river only by flowing in its flow. Go wherever it takes you.’That’s all the assurance Karva needed. Once she went, she never came back. At least not the one they knew.

Manoj was quite upset with her mother over this for few years. But he couldn’t bring himself to confront her over this. There were some things that he knew he was not entitled to question. Like her mother’s childhood. He did not know much about it. A thing that troubled him a little. Every time Manoj would try to bring up the topic of her past Nani would reply morosely ‘let the dead be dead. They have enough of us people.’

All he knew about it was from the small stories that were passed around the family. And like an unkempt secret, everyone had their own version of it.
But the most agreed one was that one night Shobha had just appeared from nowhere on the doorstep of her uncle’s house. When her uncle got up and opened the door he was shocked to see a twelve-year-old girl, smeared in blood all over, staring at him. He would have banged the door shut had that not been a common sight of that time after the India partition. At first, he could not recognize her, but then she told the names of her parents. They were some distant relative who lived in Pakistan.

‘Where are they?’

Uncle asked but Shobha just kept quiet. How she found her way to his place or how she survived her journey from Pakistan, only God knew. Uncle took her into his home and tried to find her parents. Since he didn’t quite remembered her parent's faces or had any picture of them, all he had to work with was some names. But dead people don’t give their names to the morgue. Not having any of his own kids, the uncle took upon Shobha as one of her own. It was a miracle for him. Goddess Durga had gifted him with a child. He loved her dearly, but her aunt, Oh! She hated Shobha.

The moment uncle used to leave for work, the aunt would start probing her with all sorts of questions in front of others.

‘How did your parents die?’

‘Did something happened to you in the train? I heard they raped young girls.’

‘How big was your old house in Pakistan?’

‘I’ll ask your uncle to take you there, give me the address.’

But Shobha would not utter a single word and go absolutely mute, which would just make her aunt angry. She would march Shobha around the house making her do the chores until her legs cramped. But when her uncle would come back home from work, Shobha would promptly jump into his lap and chatter endlessly like a happy child. It was no surprise that Shobha’s proximity to her uncle infuriating her aunt even more.

The accounts of brutality that her aunt subjected to her differed in each version, but the fact that her aunt and she did not get along was commonly agreed on. Some said Shobha was very clever, intentionally doing things that needled her aunt and some said she was just a poor orphan who wanted no trouble for herself.

There is one incident that was widely known. On the day of Shobha’s marriage, her aunt looked very happy and even decided to give Shobha a parting gift. Her aunt was able to track someone who had Shobha’s family photograph and had asked it to be mailed that to her. But something went wrong and the photograph never turned up on her doorstep.

Now some say that the photo arrived in the midst of the wedding preparations and was lost by the servants. Others say it was the postman who had misplaced it and some say it was the aunt herself who just wanted to play a cruel prank on Shobha. Her aunt even went on to scream at Shobha in front of all the relatives that she was responsible for this. 
Shobha did not utter a word in her defense and let the heat of the moment pass away. Anyway, the aunt did not bother much about her once she was married and was out of her house. It was then, that Shobha had truly started living. She finally had a family of her own. A family that was sitting in her kitchen right now, fighting to keep her honor after her death.

‘Who invited you?’ Manoj asked

'I came for Nani.’

‘Well she is not here anymore.’

Karva smiled. The delicate thread of formality that had let them dangling for years was finally broken. They both were free. She picked her packed bag, gave one last look at the house and disappeared into the dark, fogging night.

********
When the last of the droopy eyes had shut down and the house went silent, Chintu peeped through his blanket and looked around. It was time. He jumped over his cousins head, dodged some waving arms and tiptoed outside. The old house was full of creeks and pops secretly hidden all over it. He took one careful step at a time to go up the stairs and opened the door to the top room. The soft moonlight filtered through the window spreading on the belongings of Nani that were packed in that tiny room. Chintu looked for the trunk very carefully, for he knew it had the magical ability to look ordinary and be camouflaged in its surrounding.

He squinted his eyes and found it lying precariously upside down on top of some furniture. He hurriedly went and straighten it up. It was lighter than he had imagined it to be. He thought, perhaps life is not supposed to be heavy and placed the trunk right below the block of moonlight on the floor. He ran his fingers over the rustic metal. He had never imagined opening it, but now that it was in front of him, he wasn’t sure what will happen when he does open it.

Will Nani crawl out of it? Or her life will crawl out and go inside Nani’s body?

How does a life without a body look like? Can it even exist once the body is gone?

He tried to find the answers in Nani’s story.

What would have happened if the King had died and the parrot was still alive? Could parrot have flown off with the king’s life?

He impatiently waited for his brain to get him an answer but then decided to see for himself what happens next. He levered the lock off the trunk with a spoon and cracked it open. 
The noise echoed through the walls but nobody woke up. Chintu waited with bated breath for something to crawl out of it, but moments passed and nothing happened.

He took a look inside. There were some strange items in it. A rag doll, an old key, a crushed piece of paper with a washed out writing, a torn frock which smelled really awful and had crispy red spots all over it. Nothing, absolutely nothing looked magical enough to hold Nani’s life. He placed everything on the floor and took a careful look at it. It has to be one of these items that had Nani’s life in it.

He finally picked up an old Photograph which looked well-preserved. It was a picture of a Man and women standing next to a small girl. He did not recognize the faces in the photo, but there was something by the way it was neatly wrapped between a thick plastic frame that made Chintu think that this must have been important to Nani. He did not know what should be done with it so he decided to keep it with him safely until he can wise up enough to know what to do with someone’s life. He quietly tiptoed back to his bed and went to sleep.

Nani’s funeral was done in a grand manner in a proper Brahmin style. Jenny never turned up after the funeral to pay her homage, but everyone was happy that Nani had finally gone to heaven on her golden ladder.
********

Karva’s family did not turn up on Manoj’s funeral. Which was fair since no one turned up on her funeral. She died in a car accident and was buried as specified in her will. She did not get the golden ladder. But Chintu was there in Manoj’s funeral; grown up enough to be sitting in the kitchen along with the elders. As the old stories of the family rolled out late at night, he remembered the photograph he had found in his great grandmother’s trunk years before.
He searched for it in his boxes and looked at it again curiously, tracing his fingers on the picture of the small girl standing in the middle. Then he pulled out another of Nani’s childhood photograph with her Uncle and placed it next to this photo. They were both different girls.

Who was her Nani? Anyone. What was her religion? Anything. How did she come upon that house that night? Who knows?

All that he knew was that her Nani was not telling him the story of a King whose life was in a parrot, but the story of a parrot who lived King’s life.

Note: First Published in Active Muse:
http://www.activemuse.org/2019_Suspense_Splissue_stories/Priyanka_Mathur.html