The Beast Jagadish Mohanty
Dear Readers, a helpless lamentation of a soundless distress is hidden in this story. Be interested. Advance slowly towards the story. Throw away the words, take away ornaments of poetry. Scratch away the thin layer of words, dig deep and uproot to reach the depth. Blow away the similes and metaphors. Then you will see a helpless distress lying supine, without a covering. That is our goal.
Come, it will take you to an unfamiliar world where your politics and election, hunger and exploitation do not exist. There is no love, no attachment, nor tears nor taste of a kiss. Yet all these are there – in different forms and different taste. There you will meet raw nature in every atom, every molecule. You will meet the whole universe. It will take you beyond millions of light years to another universe.
Many think of him as uneducated and uncultured. Without any experience and sensibility. An inert piece of clods – Jada Bharat. He has no politics, no sense of discrimination between good and bad. He does not know love and affection, has no attachment to anything. He has not benefited by dish antenna, nor does he understand the language of star T.V. So he does not know what love is. From time immemorial he is not even a man for the Odia readers of stories. He is animal of flesh and blood, of arteries and veins, of bones and bone marrows, of hairs on skin and head, of nails and teeth, of eyes and ears and a nose. He has only a stomach, no brain. Such ideas are wrapped round him that his real appearance is not visible to Odia readers.
Yet, beneath all these layers is hidden his real character; like Valmiki, like Ratnakara, merciless in killing, soft in death, cool in judgment, hot in love. Come he will take you to such a man. Come he is sitting on the bond of the pond. The chameleon has appeared by shaking its head thrice. The forgetful dragonfly will be dragged away to its depth by the tongue of the frog. Come, come quickly.
Where lies hidden so much of hunger? Only hunger makes him restless. He had eaten a few date palm fruits – mixed with sand, more skin and seed than kernel. Had eaten three guavas – no not three, only two and half because a part of it was shared by a bat. Before he could eat another, an urchin saw him and shouted. That urchin was as faithful as Hanuman. While eating guava, did he not remember his hungry son or his starving wife or his old mother suffering from an unknown disease? No, not at all. It is not that all human sensibility was wasted away. It is not that when he takes his son on his lap, he does not feel any attachment. It is not that philosophers have made him tired and exhausted by throwing him like a tennis ball between existentialism and socialism. For what pleasure a self-banished man goes to the forest, picks up a rifle and lets blood flow from a heart? A status quoits becomes a terrorist? Discarding Lenin’s garment people take up Gorboyechov’s or Yelstin’s?
For his wife he has only raw passion of midnight. It is not that he does not turn to God and pray to be spared this dreadful fate, when he is carrying your mother to the cremation ground. But he cannot assuage his hunger. And this is also true that in this world there is no adulterated truth.
There he is, sitting hidden on the bond of the pond. The minister will come to the college. To erect a pandal he was requested to contribute his labour by some students of the college, by lecturers and by some gentlemen of the village. He had made up his mind not to go. He does not at all feel inclined to work neither free labour nor bonded labour at the village headman’s, nor even paid work in the field. He does not like to muck around in the watery mud, nor among paddy plants, insects and grass and creepers. Rather he likes to sit on the bond between fields and watch the struggles of life – how the bonds are being washed away by the current, how helpless are the insects during a storm or how a shoal of small fish against all odds marching in procession to declare their victory.
Come, come to him. Tear away the skin from his bare chest. See how he has kept himself imprisoned in the chamber of bones, with windows closed and screened. Is he sweating profusely? Is he feeling suffocated? Wait a second. Once you get acclimatized to the darkness everything will be visible. So clear in the mirror instead of your face will appear. Come, jump into the chamber of his heart.
Very irritating and very horrifying is the dream. A tiger is waiting in the courtyard. They are all behind closed doors, low thatched roof. They are four of them, very uncomfortable in the smoke and spider webs. The old mother is almost unconscious, covered with rags she is whimpering on the floor. He was trying to see the tiger through the chinks in the door of bamboo splints. Surunani and her son dragged him away. The tiger probably yawned, wagged its tail and growled loudly.
The same dream recurred through out the night. Surunani had stolen a fistful of rice from village headman’s house. Not enough for the old mother and the child. His share was watery gruel. Surunani had nothing but water. How can she assuage her hunger only by water? He saw only darkness in the bowl of watery gruel and the tiger in the dream throughout the night.
The man handed him a cup of tea and dragged him away from his dream. Take a cup of tea my Goodman. Do you know what the real problem is? The time is bad. Formerly a k.g of rice used to cost just Re.1. But now it is seven to eight rupees. So you see how difficult it is to manage. Then again, if it is the truckers on strike today, tomorrow Bharat Bandh. If today the terrorists created mayhem, tomorrow it is the Hindu-Muslim riot. Is the Malika wrong? Everybody will be equal, no differentiation among castes.
It is not in the Malika but in the Bhagabat. But he did not feel like correcting the man. He yawned. The sole of his feet is torn. Difficult to walk. A pair of sandals made up of truck tyre will do good. How much it will cost. He looked at the man’s pocket. Why is he not bringing out the money? There is a bunch of papers in his pocket. He is wearing a dirty long shirt. The Dhoti is equally dirty, sponge chappal on his feet, spectacle on his nose. He has probably not shaved for seven or eight days. A small garland of Rudraksha around his neck. A cigarette between his fingers. How much the man will pay?
In these times, a man needs atleast a thousand rupees per month to eat enough and live comfortably. Am I right? Besides, you need clothes, you need to spend on doctors. Isn’t it so? So it will not be less than a thousand rupees.
When this scene is being enacted, Surunani will sing a prayer in Sanskrit and the children will repeat after her.
He became a bit worried. Won’t the man pay? He should say something. He did not feel like talking. Yet he spoke because if he keeps silent, he may lose in the bargain. He said, “You say rupees one thousand? He will have to work hard. You see at the rate of twenty-five rupees for eight hours daily, it comes to rupees seven hundred fifty per month. Then again the child will stay there for twenty-four hours. For twenty four hours a day should not he get rupees two thousand per month?”
The man now looked straight at him. Probably, he thought this man was not as foolish and simple minded as he looked. He smiled and said, “Is anyone made to work for twenty four hours? He will work in a hotel or in some household. How much work will be there you tell me. If it is a hotel, he will work for ten or twelve hours at the most. He will also get his food free. Fish curry, Aloo Chop, Badaa and many other things. Can we eat such things in our house everyday?”
“ A thousand rupees is a lot of money, my good man.”
“ I have to handle his mother. Let me go and tell her. If she knows, will she allow him to go?”
The man smiled crookedly and said, “Don’t you know women folk are like that. For a day or two she will weep. Then everything will be alright. She will make a compromise with herself”.
“It will not be less than a thousand”.
“A thousand rupees will be costly for me, my man. Do you think this is a business for me? Do you think I shall get a commission out of it? No, nothing. This is service for me. You can even say service of the country. Your child will work in a hotel in Raipur. In the beginning, he will wash plates. But gradually, within a few years he will become a cook. Then his demand will go up. Then one day he will open his own hotel. What shall I get out of it? Tell me”.
Is not it pleasant to dream? Dream. His son has opened a hotel and named it: Adarsh Hindu Hotel. He saw a hotel in his imagination. Chares, tables and even a counter. He even pasted some coloured blow ups of glamorous film actresses. He even imagined the cook and the hotel boys and washing boys. But at that instant the tiger of his dream too appeared. The tiger yawned. Its whiskers, its stripped body, its round eyes, its huge mouth and sharp teeth and tongue. He suppressed all his dreams and said, “It will be not less than a thousand rupees. Do not force me, Sir”.
The man kept quiet for some time. Then said, “Shall I tell you what I think? I cannot pay more than five hundred. Then it is up to you”.
“I cannot send him for five hundred. You see, a great goat will cost you five hundred. It is a human child”.
The man now whispered, “Quiet, quiet. What do you think of me? I am kidnapping your child? Do you want to send me to jail? See, my man, your child and goat are not the same. What sort of a father are you? People buy goat to make sacrifice of it. I will take your child to make man of him. A very big man. How can you compare your son with a goat?”
“Make it rupees seven hundred fifty. I need the money. This year I have to buy roof tiles. Nothing less than seven hundred fifty”.
“No, no. More than five hundred is not possible on my part. See, it is up to you”.
The man got up, paid for the tea and said, “I am going. I have to go Lakhanpur”. Saying this he brought out his cycle and put his foot on the pedal, when the man called him, “Sir, wait a bit”.
The man put his cycle on the stand and entering the hotel put his hand on the mqan’s shoulder.
“I fear for the worst”.
“Why fear? Are not people going daily to distant places for such work? Will your child die of hunger in the town?”
“Who will look after him if he falls ill? Who will bother if he ate or did not?”
“He will stay in a gentleman’s house. Won’t he get enough to eat? Does he eat delicacies in your house? He will surely get watered rice”.
Surunani remained quiet for some time. Eyes brimming with tears. Her hair was not oiled, nor combed. She was sitting with her head between her knees. Without lifting her head she said, “I won’t give up my child”.
He was surprised at the intensity in Sueunani’s voice. He could not find words to say anything. What shall he say? How can he explain the situation? Suddenly a pure lie rusted out of his mouth. No, his voice was not grinner even for once. He was not perturbed at all. Said in a steady voice, “Now the school has driven him away. The man has said that when he goes there the gentleman will get him admitted in a school again”.
Surunani became a little bit soft perhaps. She got lost in her dream. Her son is going to school in uniform. She is waving to him. How pedestrian is the dream! Yet how impossible for her. Why, she does not know. Inspite of all her desire to get her son educated in the school it has not been possible. It is a matter of great surprise for her.
In the middle of this rumination the tiger growls. He can see the tiger clearly in the dark. Its eyes are burning like Phorperous and he feels the harsh rough tongue of the tiger licking his hand. Very uncomfortable. The tiger comes forward and sits before him. His old mother’s dead body lies near. He tells the tiger, “Eat, eat my mother’s flesh. There are big bones inside. Nurtured and strengthened by experience. Come, munch it”.
The tiger sniffs and turns away in disgust. He opens his mouth wide and yawns soundlessly. Now the tiger looks at him closely, comes near, sniffs him and goes to Surunani waving its tail. Licks her feet, tastes the dirt on her feet and comes away. Now the tiger is in their midst inside the room. Like a domesticated animal, such as cats, dogs, goats or donkeys he falls asleep comfortably.
*******************“Where are you?” he asks himself, because it seems to him that he is nowhere. In his life village politics of the Panchayat has no place, nor the corruption of embezzling the college fund. He is not concerned with the latest hot news of the eldest daughter of Mr. Mishra running away with a tribal boy. He is nowhere and in nothing. Even not in his dream. Now the tiger behind him is walking behind him like a faithful dog. He is walking with his son, holding his hand in his. Surunani has bathed their son with a lot of care, after massaging him thoroughly with mustard oil. Combed his hair, dressed him in clean pant and shirt. And wondered if the gentleman would give him a pair of new pant and shirt. Surunani had controlled herself with great difficulty. While feeding him she thought that their child had not yet learnt to eat by himself, how he shall eat in a stranger’s house and tears came to her eyes. Before they came out, Surunani had given the child some parting wisdom: to obey the master of the house, listen to what the mistress says. Won’t play any mischief. Study regularly and do household work.
The child was grave and agreed to everything by nodding his head. The man had thought that the child would cry bitterly. But nothing of that sort happened. The man stopped on the road and said, “My child, I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“I have not told the truth to your mother.”
“I do not know where you are going. You may get a job in some gentleman’s house, or in some hotel. I am sending you with a man to Raipur.”
The child remained silent for sometime. Then suddenly said, “Are you selling me off?” the man could tell pure lies to his wife. But he could not tell that to the child. His voice quivered. The child’s eye filled up with tears. “Are you selling me because I asked fir food? No father, I won’t ask for food again.” The man could not control his tears. When they came out of the house, Surunani had come running after them, to tell the child that one of his milk-tooth was lose and he should uproot it. Otherwise, he will have ugly double tooth. Now he realized, how intensely she loved the child.
He began to think that he was probably that inhuman as he thought of himself. He felt that same affection and looked at the child. Before the child’s birth Surunani had to wait for eight years. At the time of the ceremony of the child’s long life she used to be upset.
“Every mother will observe the ceremony but I cannot.” She used to lament and made everybody upset. After worshiping many Gods, after many fasting, after many rituals, she got son. At that time inspite of their poverty, she refused to work in the field in the fear of miscarriage. And for that she was scolded by his mother.
Our honourable Govt. selected twenty-two writers to see India, feted them and took them in an aeroplane where beautiful ladies served them cold drinks and foreign chocolates. They were shown from the sky the greenery of India, the India full of mosques and temples from the Himalayas to the southern tip of Kanyakumari. Only they could not see the small black people bent with heavy physical work and their hunger, their tear and their sweat. The writers wrote long essays about their experience. The Govt. spent thirty-five lacs for the project.
The child is still afraid of the dark. Does not go out at night for pee. Still sleeps holding the mother tightly. Surunani gets all worked up when the child returns home after a fight with his friends.
The man became very agitated after hearing the question, “Are you selling me because I asked for food?” His whole heart shivered and he wanted to hold the child tight in his bosom. He can manage without that five hundred rupees. He would go back with the child. His face is naturally child like and without guile. Holding him to his bosom will make his heart light. When he was a baby he loved to sleep with his head on his chest. Won’t the house look empty without the child?
He wanted to return immediately and imagined Surunani becoming very happy of their return. He surreptitiously took hold of the palms of the child. Well, the man may be a broker. He said he was headman of the village Katapalli. He does not know him at all. Will it be right to handover the child to him? Will not the man break his hands and legs and make him beg on the streets of Raipur?
His heart began to shake violently and caught hold of his legs. Should he go back? Yes, he should go back. At this moment he saw the cycle and the rider who came to him and said, “This is the child you were talking about?”
The man seated the child on the back carrier of the cycle and paddled away. When he came he was holding the hand of the child. While returning he was holding five hundred rupees rustling in his hand. The man looked at himself absent-mindedly. He has turned yellow, black stripes here and there. He looked at himself very carefully. No, it is not a dream. He has really become a tiger. Exactly like the tiger of his dreams, a real true tiger.
Exactly like the dream tiger he yawned loudly and sat in the courtyard guarding his mother and wife. He imagined Surunani and his mother had bolted the door from inside and were shivering in fear and shock.
N.B: I have taken the liability to change the title from ‘Tiger’ to ‘Beast’, because I feel that the tiger has lost some of its ferocity, thanks to Animal Planet and National Geographic. It has almost been humanized. However, it remains the tiger in the story.