Friday 27 January 2012

Retold: The fortune-teller’s child

I love to revisit this story from Chandamama, a childrens magazine in Hindi whose contents would be my only diet the day it arrived. Food, school assignments ... all else could wait.
Hope my version does justice to the original:

The fortune-teller’s fame was as tall as the trees.
The fortune-teller was wealthy, his fame as tall as the trees outside his window. People from far and wide came to consult him, for he was bestowed with a singular gift. He could accurately predict the sex of an unborn child.

The village head could vouch for the fortune-teller’s powers, for had he not predicted correctly each time his three daughters and two sons were born? So could the barber, father to seven sons and a daughter. The richest farmer in the village also recalled vividly the joy with which he welcomed the fortune-teller’s prediction of goddess Lakshmi’s advent into his household, not once but twice.

Traders travelling across towns and villages brought him more custom. Wherever they went, they bragged about their village fortune-teller who never went wrong. Expectant mothers pestered their husbands for a visit to the gifted man to know if it was a girl or a boy they were carrying.

Most were content with what they were told. Not all went away satisfied, though. The fortune-teller cleverly pacified them when their faces fell. “Oh well, if God wills otherwise, who are we to quarrel with His wish?” he would say.

Whether he had predicted a son or a daughter, newly blessed parents would come back to gratefully shower him with riches. Always bedecked in finery, the fortune-teller’s wife was the envy of the women of the village.

Yet she was unhappy. They had no child. The years passed by, till one day she gave him the good news. As the date of delivery drew near, she began badgering him day and night. “Will we have a son or a daughter?” she’d ask, but to no avail. “Be content that God has been kind to us,” was all he would volunteer.

Days after their child came into the world, she turned petulant. “You are so good with your predictions, but you always parried when it came to ourselves,” she complained.

“I can tell you the truth now, dearest,” replied the fortune-teller. He drew out his long book, the red-bound one, in which he meticulously noted every customer’s details. “I couldn’t say about ours,” he told her simply, “because I did not know.”

In stunned silence, she listened to her husband’s tale of how he made his millions. “The chances of a boy or girl are 50-50, right, so I write down the exact opposite of what I tell my customers. If what I say comes true, they bestow riches on us. If it doesn’t, I open my red book and show them what I wrote. They go away convinced it was they who must have heard it wrong.”

I must modestly add here that the picture of the tree is from my own phone camera series.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Retold in winter: A hot summer’s tale

I seem to be doing this recounting thing quite a bit. It’s deep winter nowadays, very cold, and I continue to admonish my (now grown-up) children when they are not adequately by my ageing standards clothed in woollens. This story from my Hindi textbook (junior school again) comes back to me frequently, though it's about a very hot summer day:

My digital sketch of the farmer.
On that scorching afternoon, to step out was almost like walking on coals. Yet, braving the heat, a young man was trying to tile the roof so that their hut cooled somewhat.
Again and again, his father urged him to abandon his post. 
He had been struggling all day on an empty stomach to fix the thatch and tiles, and the farmer feared for his health. The old man tried to watch him at work, but couldn’t bear the blazing sun and hot wind any more. He moved into the shade, still trying to cajole him.
“It’s useless,” he called out. “You cant possibly tile it all in one day. Enough for now, my son. Oh well, go back to it near sundown.” 
“No. You go in, Father, I’ll join you as soon as I am done,” came the reply.
The farmer stood by the door, irresolute. Then, as if struck by an idea, his eyes lit up and he disappeared into the hut. 
“Where are you taking the child, Father?” a woman suddenly cried. The farmer emerged with an infant in his arms. The child’s mother was right behind him.
The old man pulled forth a cot lying in a corner of the yard, and laid the baby on it. He motioned to the shocked woman to stay where she was. Instead, he joined her as the child let out a loud wail. The young man raced down the ladder and picked up his son.
Livid, he turned to his father. “Why did you do it? My child could die of sunstroke, don’t you know that?”
“Indeed I do, my son, I know it only too well,” said the farmer very softly. “Now bring him indoors.”

Friday 13 January 2012

Lohri: Bonding over bonfires

Lohri celebrations in our housing society, 2012.
Many, many years back I used to give away firewood to the small bands of scraggy, shawl-hugging girls that sprang up around Lohri time. They usually made their rounds near sundown, loudly singing Lohri jingles from door to door, calling out for their share of Lohri. The most popular folk songs sung on the festival even today are Hullay ni maayiye hullay, do beri pattal jhullay and Sunder munderiye ho...Dulla Bhatti wala.

The girls were about my age, came from poor families and carried sacks, big and small. They collected as charity firewood, popcorn, roasted peanuts, rewri and other gur preparations from the homes of the more fortunate ones. I would wonder how they apportioned their spoils.
I faintly recall the zest and total community participation that accompanied this Punjabi festival in my early girlhood. With the memories of Partition and the subsequent large-scale displacement still raw, Lohri night was one of great bonding and celebration for the grown-ups. Disinterested or enthusiastic, all children had to stick around. On at least one occasion my father brought me home in his arms, fast asleep.
Our flats were built in double-storeyed rows of four flats in each block, with no dividing walls to keep out prying eyes. In some ways we were extended family, though it did not work out like that for all. The service lane that ran between the rows served as a public place across which eight sets of bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms stared at each other.
On Lohri night, the open verandahs in the first block of flats would be converted into one big site for the event. A huge fire was lit bang in the middle of the service lane. Sweets and seasonal goodies were handed around. Couples walked around the fire, casting rewri, popcorn and peanuts into the flames, bowing before the Lohri fire and seeking its blessing. The ritual over, some men huddled a little out of sight, partly, I now suspect, to snatch a drink or two. Others used the occasion to catch up with neighbours while keeping vigil, for thefts were common because of ease of access.
One verandah was occupied by women and children dancing and singing around the bonfire.
Most households were nuclear. Few grandparents lived in those parts. Mine, certainly, did not live with us. So it was that young mothers would sing somewhat bawdy folk songs and – to my horrified ears – songs that taunted and badmouthed mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, spoilers of family life down the ages. My personal favourite was this vivid, foot-tapping snatch from a Punjabi boli:
Saurey kolon ghund kadd di, nanga rakhdi clip (pronounced cullipp) wala paasa
(The bride veils her face from her father-in-law, but flaunts the side where a fashionable clip adorns her hair!)
Over time, walls sprang up as daughters and sons grew up and the need for privacy became pressing. That left little space for congregating, and get-togethers became restricted to two-three families. Small Lohri fires were lit outside individual homes in narrow lanes. The little girls grew up and no one went around singing for firewood any more.
Beating the chill.
The same songs are now advertised in newspapers as “Lohri caller tunes” and can be read/sung over Internet and YouTube. In gated communities such as ours, Janmashtami, Lohri, Christmas and Diwali are indeed the only occasions when neighbours get together.
Today, we lit the bonfire, chatted a bit, tossed popcorns and rewri into the bonfire and dispersed soon after. I used my phone camera, as usual. But sitting at home at this hour, I can hear the distant rumble of drums. Probably out there, where lanes still meander between houses, the tradition of tipping roving bands of musicians continues. They used to move from one bonfire to the next, the only time apart from weddings when they made a killing.
Nostalgia, you’ll say. Sure, but life must move on. It’s a new era now and a new way of celebrating. Or I wouldn’t be writing this today…

(Picture problem. Originally posted on 13 January)

Thursday 5 January 2012

The eagle, ruler of the skies, ousted!

The husband and I visited the Bharatpur sanctuary recently. There were few birds around, but I captured on my camera (yes, camera, not my usual phone camera) this astounding one, perched barely two feet from where we stood. It is so magnificent, amazingly powerful and heart-stoppingly handsome, and yet the haughty bird had once been beaten: in this story in our junior school textbook. I can’t recall it all, but I’d like to pen what I remember:

The eagle was the most arrogant of the birds living in the jungle. The dapper wren did not like its authoritarian ways, and tried to rally public opinion against the self-appointed ruler of the skies. It longed for a more just society, not one subjugated for ages by the mighty.

When the eagle got wind of the goings-on, it threatened the wren with dire consequences, even going to the extent of saying nasty things about the health of its nestlings. The wren reinforced the nest where its little ones lay, and continued with its campaign for a new order in the jungle.

Most birds agreed with the wren, but were afraid to voice their support. The wren flitted quietly from one friend to another, till it had convinced most of them that it was time to put up a fight.

“But who would dare to challenge the big one?” asked the wise owl. “Let there be an open contest,” the wren suggested. “The one that flies the longest, and highest, will be the king of birds.”

The eagle was approached. The incredulous bird condescended to participate, secure in its belief that it was the strongest and none else could win.

On the agreed day, when the owl gave its hoot, it was as if day had suddenly been overcome by night. Wings flapping loudly, birds of all colours, shapes and sizes rose from the earth, each trying to outdo the other.

One by one, they began dropping out of the sky, unable to match the stamina of that which soared inexorably higher. At last, the eagle let out a victory screech, for it could see it was alone. “See, I am the king,” it shouted, and started descending. The brave wren, which had stayed right under the eagle’s wing, darted out at this point and flew over its head now.

“Not so fast, eagle, look up … at your king!” it twittered to the joyous cries that rent the air from the jungle below.