Just a year after my father’s demise, his face, or to say the image of him, started corroding from my memory. Now, after almost a decade, the only memories I’ve left of him are the stories he used to tell every time my brother Nivin and I had a fight. And the times he took us to the woods, as soon as it started drizzling, to hunt for the monitor lizards.
‘Never attempt to catch this guy from up front,’ he used to say, skinning the animal. ‘If it manages to clasp its teeth around your leg, either one of you must die before it would release its grip.’
My father was a man full of fascinating stories. In summer nights, we used to sleep on the veranda to escape the heat and my father would take us from the mysteries of treasure pots to the fables of misty ghosts through the legends of forest–dwellers. Like a perennial stream, until he died, he had never run out of stories. Often, when he repeated a story, I used to point it out and he would narrate the same story in a different but a compelling way. The only problem with his tales was the moral he tried to attach to them as an epilogue. For instance, at the end of his tales about the lizards, he used to say: ‘Hold on to what you love with as much rigor as that lizard.’
I was so captivated by his stories that after my mother’s death, I started accompanying him to the fields and helping him with his chores as he went on narrating his stories one after the other. In that way, I hung around him for most of his life while my brother squirmed at us and roamed about with the goons he called friends.
One day, Nivin approached me as I was assembling the cart. ‘Why don’t you join us, Njani?’ he said. ‘What good it’ll do you loitering around with the old man?’
‘Leave about good for a second. What bad has come out of it that you’re so bothered?’
‘I think it’s high time you hang out with the people your age.’
‘What’s your problem, eh?’
‘Everyone thinks you’re a sissy. Even my friends say that you’re a baby who’s reluctant to get off from his father’s lap. They’re saying it to my face, Njani. It’s ruining my repute.’
‘Now I understand you. That’s what this is all about, then?’
He stormed out of the house stomping and cursing. After that incident, he refused to talk to me for a couple of years after which he grew up and started helping my father in the fields.
Speaking of my brother, the only similarity Nivin and I shared was a birthmark on our thighs. He always hated the fact that we were twins and I came out of my mother first — or at least that’s what the witcher woman told my father. So my father considered me the elder one, to Nivin’s distaste, even though he looked older and taller and thought he was wiser than me.
So he preferred calling me by my name instead of Anna which used to upset my father a great deal. Whenever he heard my brother calling me Njani, he would lose his calm and thrash him with a tamarind stem until my mother interfered. A few times she too couldn’t stop him but would fall prey to his angst.
Growing up, I observed this in several other twins — the younger one of them always looks elder. I tried to convey this to Nivin many times but his head was as thick as his skin.
One day, we were fighting for the deer meat. Nivin wanted a stew made out of it while I preferred roasting it on coals. My father then intervened and narrated this story, I think, to gross us out. He began:
‘Like me, my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers, everyone had only sons as their progeny. Except for my brother who had two daughters — both of them were still-born. Some villagers considered it a boon on our lineage while some, a very few of them, deemed it to be a curse.
‘It was said that one of my grandmothers wanted a girl-child and prayed the mountain gods for years together but it looked like they weren’t kind to her prayers. Still not deterred, in her fifties, she adopted a girl from her distant relatives despite the resistance from both sides of the family. Even though such a thing called adoption was unprecedented in our village up until then, somehow she managed to get her husband’s and the birth mother’s approval.
‘They looked after the baby with their life. The husband brought crabs from the fields, tied a wire to their claws so that the baby could walk them like a dog. When the baby got tired of playing, they fried the crabs on coals and ate their meat. The woman never left her side and was said to have taken the baby along even when she had to pass water. Together, they did everything they could do to keep the baby happy.
‘When the baby was five, the husband brought home a wounded crane from his farm so that the baby could play with it. To his joy, the baby got excited, as soon as it saw the crane, ran to the bird jumping, and started playing with it. The old man, contented on watching the baby’s mirth, went for his daily dose of toddy. The old woman was busy preparing sticks for her cooking while the baby was left alone with the crane in the veranda. The crane might have mistaken the baby’s eyes which were moving rapidly for fish or god-knows-what and tried to have a bite. The old woman heard shrills and rushed to the baby to find her eyes — both of them — gouged out by the crane. An eye was strewn on the floor soaked in blood and the crane was picking at it with its beak. And the other one was dangling on her milky cheeks now turned bloody by the optic nerve. Howling, the woman kicked the bird with all her might. The bird bugled and would have flown away but for its wound.’
There was a strange custom in our village. If anyone’s on the verge of dying or unsure of survival, they rotate a live black hen around their head. They believed that if the hen dies, the person lives and if the bird lives, the person dies. In this case, my father told us, instead of wasting a hen, they thought they could use the culprit crane. It died immediately, but to their shock, the baby died after two days.
Our village priest used to run a school in his backyard, taking in kids under three years and teaching them to write and read until they were of ten years. The only reason my father sent us there was that the priest charged neither money nor grain for his services. Those were the times when the closest thing we’d had to a slate was a fistful of sand filled in a brick stencil and we had to use our forefingers to write on it. Our initial excitement, with which we had rushed to the school, had worn out after an hour into the writing practice. Not a single pupil went home that day without bleeding fingers.
It was worse in my case. While my brother’s skin had just a shear, my fingernail came off entirely leaving me in agony for over a month. My father scampered to the school the next day and abused the priest with such a harsh tongue that it compelled the poor fellow to provide finger caps made of cloth from then on. Even after that consolation, my father was hesitant to send me back. But somehow Nivin convinced our mother and continued his classes nonetheless. Two years into Nivin’s education, the priest died in a farming accident — he was unloading his cart of rice bags when they fell on him — and the school was closed, for, as it turned out, his sons and daughters were as ignorant as the village folks.
It’s a fact that everyone has love-and-hate relation with their families. But as for me, I had nothing but love for my father and reserved the antithetical for Nivin. At thirteen, he could carry a plow to the field all by himself while I couldn’t even lift it off the ground. Even though we were married to the girls from the same house, Nivin managed to garner more dowry than me. To add to my vacillations, he made it a custom to remind me of my setbacks from time to time. Like when he used to go to school and boast about it, saying that he would grow up to be a learned man while I would turn a ruffian. For quite some time, I tried to bottle my angst and stopped talking to him altogether when I couldn’t take it anymore.
One day as I was leaving for the weekly market, my father called for me.
‘Njani, why don’t you call for your brother so that we could have a chat?’ he said snuffing his naswar.
I remained silent, upon which he replied: ‘Is there something wrong between you both?’
I shrugged my shoulders. He continued nonetheless: ‘Do you care for a story, Njani?’
‘This isn’t the time, Bapu,’ I began, ‘I am leaving for the market — ’
‘Sit down,’ he cut me off and began his story before I could even sit.
‘The relation between my father and his brother, my uncle, was worse than the two of youse. It was worse than enmity, you can say. Whenever there was an occasion in the family, dealing with these brothers was a more daunting task to our relatives than making preparations for the event, for inviting one would upset the other. In functions they both had to attend, they cursed at each other, forgetting and foregoing their dignity. I saw them both swearing to kill one another and describe in detail how horridly one would kill the other. Want to know the reason for their hatred?
‘My grandfather had no property besides his agricultural land. So, on his deathbed, he distributed it equally between the brothers, and passed away. Everything was calm until the start of the cropping season. No one in the family knew then there was a storm in store for them — a storm which would last two decades. My uncle accused my father of encroachment on his land. To be honest, my father did no such thing. So, the family stood behind him and my uncle went to the village heads.
‘My father being a sincere man, and they knowing it, the village heads denied to call for a meeting at first. Not dejected, my uncle bribed some of them and made them call my father for the meeting. It went on for a month and my uncle, to bear the expenses of the village heads, had to sell a part of his land. And at the end of it, they decreed that my father was not guilty and there was no such encroachment as accused.
‘Unable to digest the truth and defeat, my uncle, who had a bad taste for them, next sought the help of a revenue officer who lodged a complaint against my father. The case went on for years in the mandal court all the while my uncle’s family starved. His wife died of cholera so he married again and that woman eloped with some bloke just after a year. His children died malnourished while my uncle was busy in the mandal. My dad worked hard on his field, managed his duties and did everything at his disposal to increase the produce on the crop every year. My father was relieved of the case not until you were born, and the verdict was in his favor. As to my uncle, no one knows what happened to him. Some say he committed suicide. Others say they’ve seen him begging in the Barangaon city. We’ve never been there so we don’t know the amount of truth in that news.’
As he completed his story, I looked at him puzzled as to why he narrated it to me.
‘I know how you feel about your brother.’
I opened my mouth but he waved his hand to dismiss my trial of protest. ‘I’m thinking of transferring the land to both of you, this year. You’re old and ready enough, I think. And let me say you this. We don’t worship mythical heroes or gods in our village, Njani. All that we villagers, look upon as success is the highest amount of produce on a crop in a season. I think you can beat your brother at that, don’t you?’
I nodded half-heartedly.
‘And take this as my advice. Never waste your money on pleasures. Do you know the reason they respect me in the village?’
I shook my head.
‘My father, dying, gave me half an acre of land. I bought out the surrounding lands of it and augmented it into two acres. I can say with a bit of pride that I was the only one who managed to do that in my generation. No matter how weak and feeble you are in your childhood, how insecure you are about your strengths, people will forget them once you’re successful in their eyes. That’s the reason, in folklore, heroes are said to have been born with golden armor and wicked people are said to have been born killing their mothers.’
My old man died a year after we’d had that conversation. As promised, he gave both of us an acre of land. And thus began my trials to shellac my brother. The first year, I tried every trick in the book to produce more grain than Nivin. I spent most of my days in the field, took my meals there and drank water from the stream flowing nearby and slept in the meadows for the fear of wild boars.
But all in vain, for at the end of the season, Nivin had managed to turn out the same amount of grain as I. To be upright, he managed a bagful excess, but he donated it to the local deity. So, in a way, we were on the same level in terms of yield.
I worked harder the next year but again it was Nivin who had the upper hand. I would’ve gone mad if not for my wife, who blessed me with a boy snatching away my distress. The year after that, Nivin’s grain weighed two times more than mine. It was then that my wife told me: ‘I think your brother’s cheating you.’
How?, I wondered.
‘He might be stealing from your heaps of grain. Otherwise, think of it, how can he produce more than you without working as hard as you? Listen to me and appoint someone to guard the crop at nights.’
I took heed and selected her brother for the watch-guard. But he reported every morning that there was no such foul play as we feared. Yet I paid him to guard for the entire season. This time Nivin produced the highest grain in the village and people began talking about him. I was so upset that I couldn’t eat food for a week.
Just when everything was going downhill, there came a stranger in our village. He built a shack for himself on the river bank. The entire village took him for a sorcerer and dreaded running into him. People chided when someone brought up his topic, but talk they did of him nonetheless. They were even reluctant, my wife told me one evening, to go to the river to bathe.
Intrigued, I decided to pay a visit to this enigmatic person and went to the river one fine morning. The shack was empty except for a bed and some earthly pots blackened by soot. From the window, I could see the man standing in the river and folding his hands at the rising sun. Sunlight glinted in the drops of water falling from his palms. The wind made his long jet black hair dance to its tune. The scenery was so serene that for a second I forgot all my woes and wanted to join him in the water. He came in as he completed his respects and I took a good look at him. He had broad shoulders, a divine face and looked no more than forty.
After a brief introduction, we began talking, and before I could realize, we talked into the nick of the night. I left unwillingly but returned the next day first thing in the morning. I connoted all my problems to him and he said he would help me. All that I had to do was to believe in his god and pray to Him seven times a day. I did it with unperturbed conviction for a month when he gave me a root wrapped in a leaf. ‘Dip this in your blood and throw it in your field,’ he advised and I abided. Surprisingly, that season, my production increased and was equal to that of Nivin. That cleared any doubts I had had for my friend. And from then on, I started blindly following his words.
The main reason I have trusted him was he never asked for money, grain or a favor. One time when I offered him money, he shook his head smiling and said: ‘I’m here to help you, Njani. And I’m not a man of apprehensions, mind you. When I need a help from you, I’ll definitely ask for it. You can be sure of it.’
The next year, Nivin, had a heavy loss and had to sell a part of his land to clear his debts. I was overjoyed on hearing this but soon it morphed into pity for my brother. I asked him to seek my friend’s help but he was, as always, resistant to counsel.
Even my produce hit an all-time low one season. When I sought for my friend’s aid, he introduced his brother, who looked just like him but only younger. He guided me to change my name by adding a consonant to it. So I changed it to Njanni but there was no change in my produce.
I confronted the brothers seething with anger, when they said in unison: ‘Give us a last chance.’ I did and they asked me to remove a room in my house. I went along with their whims despite my wife’s rebuffs. But at the end of the year, I got the highest grain not only in the village but the entire mandal. As per the custom, the villagers made me a member of the grain board, awarded me two quintals of wheat and gold-coated tiger claws. Somehow the villagers got a whiff of my secret and one by one they thronged to the shack. I never saw the shack empty again. My friend got so occupied with the villagers that I had to send a note asking for a rendezvous which he rejected.
After a month, as I sobered from my success, my friend paid a visit to my house along with his brother and a village head in tow. ‘As for the services we rendered, Njani, we want to charge you a fee,’ he said standing in my veranda. ‘Even though it won’t be sufficed, I would like to have your acre of land.’
Before I could utter a word, he continued: ‘As for my brother, he would have the grain you produced this year.’
I was knocked out of my wits and words failed me. My wife rushed out of the house and started shouting at the edge of her voice, hurling curses at the trinity. Soon, the whole village was standing in our veranda with pricked ears and piqued interests. My friend jotted down the conversations I had with him over the years; only he called them dealings. I was partly relieved that he didn’t reveal my feelings towards my brother. Not one soul spoke up in my defense and it was pretty evident that they were all under his spell. Thus, I was robbed off my land, grain and dignity. The next day my wife left me along with my sons.
A few sympathizers dropped in on their way to the fields the next day to say that they would stand by me. Together we went to the river bank, in hopes of demanding justice, but there was no sign of a shack. Apparently the brothers were wanderers and had left for another village in search of a different friend. On enquiry, I got to know that they sold my land to the village head that was with them on that fateful day.
To my surprise my brother came for my rescue and was ready to give me a part of his land. I didn’t want to live at someone’s mercy, least of all his. So I started working as a laborer in my own field. I waited for my day. After all, my father used to say, every dog has its day. It came after two years, on my trip to a nearby hamlet, where I heard people talking about two brothers with powers in hushed tones. But by the time I had reached them, they had fled. So, I had set out on an expedition asking the wayfarers if they’d seen two identical people in saffron clothes. I lived on wild berries, stream water and slept on the tree branches. I begged, robbed and threatened the travelers for food.
When I had run out of money, I started working in a roadside inn where my friends, on one of their escapades, chanced upon me. They tried their best to slip but I was too slick, by then, for them to escape. I bid a goodbye to my inn-mates and directed my friends to a groove.
‘I know you are cheats. But tell me this,’ I asked them at knife-point. ‘Do you people really have powers?’
‘Would you be standing there threatening us if so?’
‘Then how did you increase my produce every year?’
‘Who told you it increased? It was just higher than everyone else’s.’
As Njani was busy writing his story, a young man in saffron clothes entered his room silently. ‘Swami,’ he bowed down, ‘the other masters are waiting for you.’
‘In a minute,’ Njani said, closing his book, and went for his friends but only after donning a saffron shawl around his shoulders and a smile across his face.
Featured image: “The City of Masulipatam,” 1672, from Columbia University
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