Friday, December 7, 2007

Weekend Journey - Malsawmi Jacob


It was a bright, windy Friday evening. The tops of trees on Wheeler Road in Bangalore were still sunlit, but the road itself was already in deep shade. Vehicles passed frequently, and several pedestrians hurried along. Zodini plod wearily on the pavement, having walked for a kilometre from the bus stop after a day’s work fifteen kilometres away.


But she forgot her tiredness when she saw the dwarf woman. She was heading towards her from the opposite direction. All the other dwarfs she had seen before were deformed people, like the ones in circuses. But this one was evidently a normal person, with an intelligent face; sari-clad, wavy hair tied in a pony tail, a lady’s handbag slung on one shoulder. She was about half a metre tall, middle aged and slightly plump. In short, except for her height she looked in every respect a normal woman. And nothing comical about her.


No one else seemed interested; they passed on with hardly a glance. But Zodini was fixed.

“Excuse me, madam, can we talk?” she stopped and asked. The dwarf woman looked up and smiled.

“My name is Zodini. You can call me Dini for short. I’m newish to Bangalore”, she continued.

“English gotilla”.

“So sorry, I haven’t learnt any Kannada. How I wish we could chat!”


Tak! A tiny young man in a red pointed cap, dressed in blue jeans and white kurta, stood before her by the side of the dwarf woman. He was only a few centimetres taller than her, had medium brown complexion and deep set eyes. He sported a moustache and goatee. “Good afternoon, ma’am. My mother doesn’t speak English. I’m Vit, glad to meet you”, he said in impeccable, Call Centre neutral accent.


Dini rubbed her eyes and then stared. “Have I gone mad or something?” she muttered.


The young man laughed. “No, Dini ma’am, you’re not mad. You must be used to seeing my mom, she likes walking this street. But you wouldn’t have seen me or the rest of the clan. Most of us prefer to stay invisible when inside the town. That’s why you’re surprised”, he said.


“Well, well, well, this is really interesting”.

“Would you like to visit our home and meet the rest of our people?”

“Where is it?”

“A bit far. We live in Jalahalli”.

“Hey! I work that side. I’ve just come back from there”.

“Funny. My mom works here, I’ve come to take her home. Come along”.

Dini hesitated. Then she remembered her friend Hlimi’s motto. “Why not!” she said. “How do we go, bus?”

“Oh, I forgot!” the young man said. “I thought we could go three on my bike. But you wouldn’t fit, you’re too big”.

“What to do then?”

“Would you mind ...... becoming small, that is, our size? And of course, we’ll have to travel invisible. That’s what we usually do”.

“I can’t make myself small or invisible. I can’t do magic and I’m not in a story book, you see”, replied Dini, half annoyed now.

“Leave that to me. Only if you agree, I’ll see to the rest. I just don’t want to be accused of black magic, abduction and such stuff, that’s all. I’ll change you only with your permission. Okay?”

“Okay. What the heck!” she said.


He passed a hand lightly over her eyes. She did not feel any different, but realized that Vit had become a little taller than her, and she was at level with his mother, who smiled pleasantly at her. “Come, my bike’s parked over there”, he said.


It was a bright yellow motorbike, modelled like a Yezdi. Vit kick started it, his mother clambered up on the backseat, and Dini climbed on behind her. It was rather a tight squeeze. Vit turned back and said “We’ll have to fly, please don’t get scared. We small people have to make up for our size with our speed, you know”.

“I like speeding”, Dini replied.


But she gasped when they actually rose up in the air. She hadn’t thought that Vit meant it literally when he said they were going to fly. He turned back and said, “By the way, if you’re carrying a mobile phone, will you please switch it off?” She fished it out of her bag and put it off with some difficulty, her elbow knocking against the elderly woman.


They flew along Davis road, then over Lingarajpuram bridge, following the road towards Hennur. “We fly along the road to avoid hitting against trees. And we take the same time to reach places as the big people do by going on the ground”, Vit explained.


They went on, flying just high enough not to touch the tops of buses and bulky loaded lorries. There were other small bikes flying too, some in opposite direction. Some riders smiled and waved. But no one on the road under them seemed to see or hear the low air traffic. At Hebbal flyover, they rose higher to keep above the vehicles up on the bridge. When they passed Bel circle, Dini remarked “Why, this is the very route I take for going to work”.


Finally they touched down on a wide green field surrounded by tall trees, dotted with pretty red tile roofed houses. It was a beautiful colony. She looked beyond from between the trees and commented in surprise “Hey, I work in that school over there, just across the fence. How come, I often look this way from there, but never notice the houses though I see the grass and trees”.


“Magic”, Vit replied.


They entered a single-storied house. A pretty woman greeted them. “This is my wife Vily”, Vit said. “Have Vik and Vish come back from school?” he asked her in English.

“Yeah, they’ve gone out to play”, Vily replied. “Will you all have tea now?”

Vit’s mother was talking to Vily in a very strange tongue that Dini had never heard. “I thought your mother tongue was Kannada”, she remarked.

“No, our mother tongue is Kdarv”, Vit replied. It’s one of the Dwarf languages spoken around here”.

“Dwarf language?” she asked, puzzled.

“Yes, we’re dwarfs, not humans, remember, though most of us have learnt human languages too. And we teach English in our schools, it comes useful. But among ourselves we speak Kdarv”.

“What do you mean, you’re not human? Aren’t you just a smaller variety of humans, like the Pigmies and such?”

“We’re not humans, and we feel insulted to be classed as humans”, Vit said with a smile. “We’re a separate group of creatures altogether. We do resemble humans, and we’ve lived among them for so long that we’ve learnt their languages and even taken some of their ways. But please do not call us humans. Some of our country cousins do that to tease us.”

“Who are your country cousins? Dwarfs from rural places?”

“No. Our cousins are other small people like elves, pixies, goblins, fairies.... Most of them are much smaller than us”.

“All those people are real? Aren’t they just story book stuff?”

“They’re as real as we dwarfs are real. But they hardly show themselves to humans. Scared of them”.

“Why?”

“If you ask me, humans are the scariest folk on earth. It’s only dwarfs who are willing to go near them. Imagine, for example, if you saw a fairy – a tiny, pretty, winged creature with two legs, what would you do? Most probably capture her and put her up for show. Or worse, do some cruel, so called scientific experiments on her.”

“But, don’t they all know magic, like you do?”

“Oh, yeah. Magic is the only defence we little people have. It’s only because of magic we’ve survived so far; otherwise, we’d’ve been wiped out by now. Even with magic, our numbers have dwindled while human population keeps multiplying. And except for the dwarfs, all the other races have been shrinking in size too, for ages”.


Vily brought tea and snacks. Two little boys came running in. “These are my sons, Vik and Vish. They’re twins”, Vit said. Dini smiled and tried to shake their hands, but they giggled and hid behind their mother. “They’re shy with strangers. But once they get to know you they’ll be freer than you like”, Vily said with a smile.


As they were having tea, Vit said, “Sorry, but I’ll have to leave for work soon. Please feel at home, my mother and Vily will look after you. And once Vik and Vish become friends with you.....”

“Where do you work?”

“In a Call Centre”.

“A human one?’

“No, dwarf. Actually, we had Call Centres long before humans. We’re an older race, you see, and far more advanced in some ways. Will you please stay for the next couple of days with us? I’m free Saturdays and Sundays. Do you have a family? Would they miss you?”

“I do have a family, but they won’t miss me. My husband’s away on tour, he’s away most of the time. My two sons are in college, they’re busy with their studies through the week and with their social life through the weekend. Even if they happen to notice my absence, they won’t mind it at all. And weekends are such lonely times for me. I’m most happy to stay, thank you”.

“Good then. I’ll get ready and go. We’ll get together and talk tomorrow evening”.


Once their father left, the two little boys started making friends with Dini. “What’s your name?” Vik asked.

“Dini. Can you say it?’

“Dini”, they both repeated.

“Are you Chinese? You look like Chinese”, Vish asked.

“Have you seen a Chinese?”

“Yes”, Vish said. “In the TV”, Vik said.

“I’m not Chinese, though my great great great grandfathers and grandmothers may have come from China. I’m from the hills of north east India, a state called Mizoram”, she replied.


“Please tell us a story”.

“Grandma always tells us stories but she’s tired now and gone to take rest”.

“What story do you want?”

“About your great great great great grandfathers and great great great great grandmothers”.


“My ancestors were farmers and hunters. They grew rice and vegetables in their fields, and hunted wild animals when they had time.”

“That’s not good”, Vik interrupted. “Our teachers tell us it’s not good to kill wild animals. They may get all finished if we keep killing them.”

“Right. But those days, there were more wild animals than hu – dwarfs or other people. And there were more jungles than towns. So may be it was okay to hunt. But, they were head hunters, too”.

“What’s that?”

“They cut off people’s heads and brought them home.”

Vish screamed. Vik got up and moved away.

“No, no, they don’t do it now. It was long long time ago”, Dini said quickly. “And I don’t kill anything except mosquitoes and roaches. I kill mosquitoes because they bite me, and roaches because they keep using my kitchen cupboard for their toilet.”

The boys laughed. “Mamma also kills roaches”, Vik said.


“Well, for my forefathers, hunting was a big thing. Being a great hunter was like being a great cricket star or a movie star now. All the men wanted to be good hunters.


“In one village, there was a young chief who had a most beautiful sister named Chawngtinleri. One day, the young chief went to the forest to hunt. Though he searched and waited all day, he couldn’t find any animal to shoot. He was very disappointed, and sat down on a rock, covering his face with his hands. After a while, he heard voices beside him and looked up. A group of wood fairies were standing before him.


One of them spoke. ‘You couldn’t find anything to hunt today because we hid all the animals. We wish to make a deal with you’, he said.

‘What do you want?’

‘We want your beautiful sister to be our queen. If you give her to us, you will be able to shoot as many animals as you wish’.

‘How dare you ask for my sister! She’s the only family member I have’

‘But you want to become a great hunter, don’t you?’

He thought for a while, and decided to give away his sister. So the wood fairies took Chawngtinleri away and made her their queen.


“The next time the chief came to the forest to hunt, Chawngtinleri came to him riding on a stag. She was followed by a procession of deer, wild boar and many other animals. ‘Shoot whatever you want, you who sold your sister for animals’, she told him. In this way, the young chief became a well known hunter. And Chawngtinleri too became famous as the queen of the wood fairies.”


“Nice story. Now, tell us a story about head hunting”, Vish said.

“Won’t you be scared?”

“Of course, we’ll be scared. It’s fun being scared”, Vik said.

“Okay. Once, there was a beautiful girl named Chhingpuii. She was in love with a brave young man named Kaptluanga, who was a very good hunter. But someone became jealous of him because of his hunting fame, and because the beauty of the village loved him. So they performed magic to make him ill. They made him swallow a comb in his dream. From then on, he kept coughing up blood. He became very weak. He couldn’t hunt or go out to meet Chhingpuii any more. At this time, their village and the neighbouring village had a fight. One morning, when Chhingpuii was going to the fields to work, men from the enemy village lying in ambush suddenly attacked and killed her. They cut off her head and took it. And they put it up on a bamboo pole in the village square. The people came together, drank rice beer, and sang and danced around it through the night. When Kaptluanga came to know about it, he shot himself dead with his gun”.


“Horrible”, Vish commented.

“Really horrible”, Dini replied. My people used to do such horrible things in olden days. But after they changed their religion, they became a little better. The new religion teaches that it’s wicked to murder people. But some don’t obey the teaching and are still following the old ways. Not by hunting heads, but by being cruel to others”.


Vily called them for dinner. After dinner and dishes, the two boys eagerly went off to bed. Their grandmother was going to tell them bedtime stories. Dini and Vily sat chatting.


“You have a lovely family”, Dini said.

“Thank you. I’m sure you have a nice family too. You’re a good story teller, your children must enjoy your stories a lot” Vily replied.

Dini’s face fell.

“I couldn’t tell stories to my children when they were small. I couldn’t spend time with them at all, I was always busy. Now they’re grown up, they have no time for me. I’m a lonely old mother”.

“Sorry to hear that”.

“Perhaps it’s what I deserve. I got back what I gave”, Dini said with a bitter laugh.


The next morning when Dini got up and came out of her room, Vily was already in the kitchen. She gave her strong hot coffee. As Dini sat sipping it, Vik and Vish walked into the kitchen. Putting their forefingers on their lips, they told her “Sh.... don’t make noise. Pappa’s asleep. He works all the night so he has to sleep now”.

Vily smiled and explained “They’re repeating what I keep telling them.”


The day passed pleasantly in cooking, baking, washing and chatting with Vily and the boys. Their grandmother also joined in the works and talks, with Vily interpreting. It was a lovely family time, doing homely things together. No one feeling tense, no one in a hurry. It seemed a perfect way to spend a weekend holiday. To Dini, it felt like an ideal experience, from somewhere deep in the past or in a dream. At the same time, a sense of longing, or nostalgia, she didn’t know what to call it, swept over her and tears gathered to her eyes.


“What’s the matter?” Vily asked with concern.

“Nothing. I’m so happy to be with your family like this. This is something we don’t get to do in our home”, she said.

“Such an ordinary time and....”

“Ordinary is beautiful” Dini said with emphasis.

Late in the afternoon, Vit got up and had his lunch in the kitchen. “I hope you haven’t been bored”, he said to Dini.

“Not at all. This is the best weekend I’ve had in a long time”, she replied.

“You can meet some of our neighbours, they’ll be glad to see you. You’re the first human to visit our town”, he told her.

He made some phone calls. And soon, several men, women and children came. The house filled with people. Some of the women brought food. It became an impromptu party. They asked Dini many questions, many of which she couldn’t answer. Like what was her suggestion on improving Bangalore infrastructure, what she thought would be the solution to the increasing environmental pollution, and her comment on the political situation. She was surprised by their knowledge and understanding of human social affairs. Many of them were better informed than she was.


The next day after breakfast, they set off to make a visit. Vily had packed a large amount of cooked food. Vik and Vish were quite excited. “We’re going to uncle Rem’s. He got a TV. We can watch cartoons, animals and lots of other programmes”, they told Dini.


“Vily and I have decided not to get a TV yet, since our children are still small. We’re trying to save them from addiction”, Vit explained.


They walked for about half an hour, went up a hillock and reached a white wooden gate through which they could see a small cottage made of red brick. A white haired elderly man and a shaggy black dog greeted them, and they entered the compound, hedged round with tall plants. The front was a wide stretch of green flat grass, on two sides were fruit trees, and a bit of vegetable garden peeped out from behind the house. The boys patted the dog, who licked them all over their faces.


They entered the house. The walls and ceiling were panelled with wood. The floor too was made of shiny dark wood, except for the cooking area, which was paved with baked earthen tiles. There were only two rooms and a bathroom inside. One room was sitting cum dining cum kitchen. The other was a bedroom. There were no chairs or sofas in the sitting area, but fat cushions were piled up against one wall. In the dining area, there was a round table and four round stools. In one corner of the sitting area stood a big TV on a wooden table.


They took the cushions, placed them where they wanted and sat down. Uncle Rem gave them fresh mango juice. When they finished, he asked the boys, “Alright, what now? TV or play?”

“TV” Vik said.

“Play first, then TV” Vish said.


They chatted, walked round the compound, and watched TV. And they had a picnic on the grass in the front. Then it was time to go back. And soon it was time for Dini to go home. She bid a rueful goodbye to the family. Vit dropped her home on his flying bike, and changed her back to her normal form.


It was already dark when she reached home. She put on the lights, drew the curtains, changed her clothes and started cooking. She didn’t know whether her children would be home for dinner, but she decided to cook any way. Another lonely evening. She waited and waited. She kept thinking of Vily’s family, and of Uncle Rem living all alone in his red brick cottage on the hillock. She thought that he was less lonely than she was, though supposed to be living with her family.


At last, about ten o’clock, her elder son, Joe, came home. “We went to Mysore from college on Friday”, he said. “I tried to inform you but your phone was off. We had a grand time.” Just then, Joy, the younger son also arrived. “Sorry Mamma. Last two nights I came home late. The lights were off so I thought you had slept and didn’t want to disturb you. You were not reachable when I tried to call.”


“I was also away last two nights”, she stated.

“Where?” Joe asked.

Before she could answer, Joe’s mobile phone rang. He moved out to talk.

“Where did you go?” Joy asked.

“I found a good place to spend the weekend.”

“Where’s that?”

Joy’s phone sang now. “Excuse me”, he said and walked out.


~~~


Malsawmi Jacob has written several poems and short stories, many of which have been published. She lives with her family outside Mizoram, and currently works with SPARROW.


Picture: The Walk to Paradise Garden 1946 by W Eugene Smith


3 comments:

codeAries said...

Ka la chhiar hman chiah lo nain i blog hi a ropui ka ti... Mizoram tan contribution ropui tak i nei tlat...


Han ti zel teh khai... all da best..

Storyteller said...

Thank you. Lo chhiar hman i lo tum ve hram don nia...

Anonymous said...

oo working @ SPARROW...thats so cool!!