Dusk came rapidly, sliding over the rugged terrain in a few minutes, and settled down unobtrusive, like a curled-up cat. A cold wind, dagger-sharp, blew down the ragged hills, far-off, silhouetted against a darkened sky.
The rude camp was lit up by the open fires. Families sat around the open kitchens, awaiting a modest meal. Treetops swayed drunkenly in the wind. The camp was filled with smoke and the confused sounds of dogs and humans. Kids laughter trailed, punctuated by the crackle of the burning wood, the sound of the powerful wind that ruffled up the carpet of fallen-leaves in its wake.
Evenings are pleasantly cold in October. The gloom spreads out, blurring the edges of the hills, trees and the huts in the distance. All around trembles darkness-mellow, translucent and anonymous. Families huddle together and talk in low voices. A sad lonely night. A general depression grips the adults in the camp. The men watch the evenings and the early nights. The tarpaulin-n-sheet tents shiver in a rogue wind and a threatening gloom. They revive memories of a nightmare.
The rough shelters going up in crimson-hued flames, giant flames, hungry hissing leaping. The night sky filled up with the dancing inferno. Columns of smoke, spiraling up, stinging and choking and irritating. Within an hour, everything is burnt down, charred, beyond recognition. Angry ambers sizzling in the blackened earth, some stunted singed slender shoots moving obscenely in the air. The government trucks, 48 hours later, arriving and ferrying the wretched of the earth to a camp 12 km away, on an uneven ground, dumped as human garbage. Press, politicians, police-the same story, covering the quick “rehab” of the poor gypsies on the outskirts of Delhi, the capital of India, in an improvised camp, where these victims of the communal violence were assured of protection and meals by the state. The small tribe did not have any choice and stuck together as frightened children in the compound of the old building, watched by the cops; the outside civilization hostile towards these nomads, always on the move….
The government camp brings its own brand of solidarity among the survivors of the carnage. Folks unite and bond easily. Neighbours discover lost virtues. It becomes a large family, under a threat from an unseen force. As the evening advances stealthily, they discover the absence of Mahua, a de facto leader.
Where is he?
The men, in twos and threes, search the camp, nearly patch of forest, the far-off highway. The kids run across the camp, looking for Mahua, their uncle.
They could not find him anywhere.
Where is he?
Women got concerned. Men were anxious. Children remembered. The 80-year-old, strong as a bull, trim as a bamboo; the man was the best storyteller in the tribe and a respected senior. He would listen to their complaints and settle disputes. Play with the kids. Protect them as a grandpa. He told the ill-clad, barefoot, pot-bellied, swollen faced kids the story of the fish and the giant.
“You want a story, children?” he often asked the children.
“Y-e-e-s-sss!” they would shout happily.
“OK. Here it goes.” And he would begin in a rich voice, “Listen… Once upon a time, a giant lived in a castle. Interested?”
“The castle was near the river. The huge river flowed ceaselessly. The giant fish floated in the river. Two big trees-as big as the castle-took roots near the steep bank of the river. The trees grew and reached the topmost roof of the golden castle. The giant did not like this, he being jealous. One day he cut down the trees and burnt them in his fireplace. The smoke filled up the sky.
The big fish coughed up and said, “Selfish giant, selfish giant”.
The giant heard this and trapped the fish in his golden net.
“What did you say?” asks the one-eyed giant.
“Selfish,” says the fish.
“How?” he asks.
“You killed the trees.”
The giant smiles. “I am going to eat you up now.”
The fish smiles and says, “You kill me and you kill yourself.”
“Oh, foolish fish! Nobody can kill a giant.”
“Oh, foolish giant! You are ignorant. First you kill the innocent trees… then you kill me. You will die. I put a curse upon you!”
The giant laughed and killed the fish and ate up the hapless fish.
Then, you know, what happened, dear children?”
“No, Uncle!” the kids said in chorus, sitting under the banyan tree. “Tell us, please!”
“OK. The giant died soon.” Mahua said with a long sigh.
“The curse wiped away the trees and dried up the river. The sands of the desert were waiting like a hungry wolf. They swallowed up his golden castle and a bald famished one-eyed giant in it.”
The men were moving in groups. Someone said Mahua was sitting sad and lonely throughout the last night and the full day. He remembered his grandchildren often who were the victims of an earlier violence. Above all, he remembered the place where we all had lived as a community. He had stopped speaking and grown sad and very quiet. Then somebody said, Mahua often talked of the huge banyan tree and his rude tent nearby, on the rising ground, where he had spent his last many years as a wandering worker.
His life was tough!
They all agreed. Two sons who drank themselves to death. Grandchildren charred to death. Daughters-in-law dead. Only Mahua lived on. He spent mornings fashioning iron tongs and hammers, afternoons hawking them in the small town divided by invisible borders and hatreds, evenings under the towering banyan tree, home to birds and souls of the dead. Camp life he never liked. The fenced-off area, away from his humble, makeshift hovel, put him off. He roamed the camp like a ghost, chatting up with the kids. Then he had gradually shut up within. He refused food. He did not talk. He just stared at the distant space, oblivious of the crowd near him, thinking of his home.
The poor soul! He just caved in!
How long can you suffer poverty, loneliness and soul-destroying pain?
Where is he?
Some younger women; the tea vendor at the highway; late-returning farmers confirmed seeing Mahua. He was walking like mad, striding down the highway, deaf to their greetings. He walked briskly like a guy possessed. He looked fixedly ahead, mumbling to himself, gesturing. The poor thing! The neighbours had cooked food for him but he had refused. Even kids could not coax a story out of the grey-bearded old man. He sat near the tent, under the yellowing sun and a warm wind, wrapped up in tight knots inside himself. Nobody dared disturb.
Towards afternoon, he saw a kid and said softly, “Where were you, Raj Kumar?”
The kid said, “I am Ramu, son of Itbari Lal.”
“No, you are Raj Kumar. My lost grandson. You always play pranks on me. Where have you been? I missed you awfully. Look, your grandpa has become so old, without you. Now, do not leave me. Come on, my son, come here!”
The kid, scared stiff, ran away. A young man, later in the day, saw him talking to air, calling out the names of his dead sons and his stray dog. He was talking to them softly, complaining about his falling health, recalling happy old days when they all lived together. Others said they overheard him talking about his hovel near the banyan tree, the open ground, the wind and the stars. He seemed to be trapped in the narrow, dusty, small and crowded camp. He did not like it at all. His home was beckoning him. That small patch of rough ground and that enormous banyan tree and the open sky.
Where is he now?
Ten-twelve men, young and strong, reached the vast ground where the nomads and other city migrants had lived for last many years. They carried torches and stout sticks. A large moon was shining in the sky. Stars were twinkling like heavenly lamps in the clear sky. The wind, cold and powerful, was moaning in the trees and shrubs that ran along the highway, pulsating like an overfed snake. The ground was deserted. A month or so had passed after the carnage. There was death lingering in the damp stale air coming off the river, a mile away, in the background. Smell of death, decay and burnt hovels! An eerie silence prevailed. The banyan tree stood tall and massive against a milky background. The deep silence was unsettling. The white moon had washed up the desolate wild landscape in silvery smooth light. The rising ground, the puddles formed on account of last night’s sudden heavy downpour, the wild grass and one or two surviving small Neem trees all looked deathly pale or unreal. The solitary ground was now a graveyard of mutilated, bloody memories. They negotiated the puddles, the weeds, the sharp-edge stones and other deadwood, and, reached the foot of the big banyan tree.
“He is dead!” someone said.
“Yes. He was crying before his death.”
“It seems he was praying and crying at the same time. He seems to have died some time back. We should burry him here.”
The old, wizened, bearded face showed peace and tears dried up.
The man finally had found home.
The wind howled, the moon showed a quivering and cold and desolate vast ground over run with weeds and garbage.
And then fluffy clouds suddenly eclipsed the moon, sending the whole bitter landscape into darkness.
Dr. Sunil Sharma is a Toronto-based author-academic-editor who has published 23 creative and critical books— joint and solo. He is, among others, a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award 2012. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015.
You can find more of Sunil’s work here on Ink Pantry.