“These are delicious fish from the fresh-waters of Telbal*, you shall not regret this bargain,” the doe-eyed fisherwoman urged. He was bewitched by her majestic presence; she looked like a living Goddess and as a tribute to her attractive aura he never heckled over the price with her.
“All right, weigh 500 Gms for me,” he relented. The woman unleashed a radiant smile as if she had won a huge battle and weighed the fish scrupulously.
“I swear by ‘Allah The Almighty’ that you will bless me after eating this fish,” she said as she emptied the fish in his canvas bag.
He increased his pace as the darkness of early winter spread around, it was getting late as he had to prepare fish curry with radish and rice. A pint of army rum in the canvas bag doubled his urgency to reach home. Today, was a good day at the office as he got generous tips for the odd jobs. As he opened the wooden door of his house, the rusted hinges made a loud creaking sound and the brown coloured bitch with white spots on her body appeared as usual, wagging her tail.
He bent down, patted her back and muttered, “Be patient, my dear, soon you shall have the whole head for dinner”. The bitch as if understanding, rubbed its face against his legs and galloped into the deserted lane. He crossed the compound and climbed the stairs briskly. He lived in a room on the top floor of the house as his brothers with their families resided on the ground and first floor. He turned the key and opening the door switched on the lights, as it had turned dark by now. It was a fairly big room with a small pantry attached to it. The room was neat and well maintained, with a large window opening towards the canal, offering a clear view of the ‘Vaitaal-Bairav’ temple.
He rushed down to the aangan* with an earthen bowl full of raw fish to wash and cleanse them at the common tap. He hated to do this but had no choice. “Let me do this for you,” Gunwati, the widow was standing with a basket full of utensils.
“Oh no I can’t bother you as you have your own chores to do,” he answered.
“Look son,” she said kindly, “Leave this tedious job of cleaning the fish to me and then Shyama would cook them, you go to your room and relax.” Gunwati insisted and he gave in. He felt overwhelmed by her kind and considerate words; as such encounters were rare in his life.
His name was Swaraj Nath, but everyone called him ‘Natha’. The name ‘Natha’ was coined by his Head master while he was in the Junior School. It was wrongly assumed that the name stuck, as he was academically weak but he clearly understood that his gawky physicality and awkward features made him look like ‘Natha’. He was 29 years old, tall and wiry (almost 6 ft) with an aquiline face having high cheekbones and hollow cheeks. The front upper teeth protruded out between his thin lips. His forehead stuck out above the deep sunken eye sockets. The saving grace being his eyes-big, round and intelligent. The worst part of his personality was his gait. He walked on his toes never being able to set both his feet on ground fully, so he walked strangely, swaying from one side to the other. His voice was hoarse, husky and semi-audible due to the deformed vocal chords. He had thick and jet black hair that he wore long in order to cover his weirdly shaped ears.
He put the glass of rum down as he heard a soft knock on the door and opened the door. Shyama the widow’s daughter was holding the earthen bowl of cooked fish, the strong aroma and flavour filling his nostrils. He smiled and thanked Shyama as she stood demurely at the door. He forced Shyama to take half portion of cooked fish amidst her sober protests. She left with a grateful smile while Natha stood there; admiring the ambience of her simplistic and uncomplicated beauty.
“Let the mother-daughter duo enjoy and have a rare feast tonight,” he thought. Like him, they also had been ill-treated, being totally ignored and disgraced. The cruelly malevolent society, including the close relatives chose to disregard them making them feel like outcasts. He had lived with the same trauma throughout his life. People laughed at him, children booed him in the streets and even threw pebbles at him. His physical deformities made him an object of amusement. He despised these insensitive people who refused to accept him as a normal human being. He detested their lack of consideration but had learnt to live with it.
He sat smoking on the edge of the drain, patting the silky smooth back of ‘Roopa’ the brown bitch as she devoured the fish-head. Roopa would feel his sorrows and share his occasional exuberance. His emotions found constant expression in the comforting company of Roopa. He could identify Roopa’s every grunt, bark, yawn quite clearly and she would also reciprocate appropriately to his mood swings. It was an amazingly unique relation between the two loners. The bitch was the only human being who cared for him, the way his late mother cared and understood him, and aptly Natha had named her after his mother- ‘Roopa’.
Natha became desperate as Roopa was missing, it had never happened before. With a stick in his hand to ward off the vicious street dogs and the teasing scoundrels (boys who teased Natha in the streets), he had roamed the nook and corner of Rainawari* but could not find her. It had turned dark by now but Natha could not rest till he found her. He realized that he had left the town behind and was walking amidst the vast graveyard (Mal-kha)*. He could see a few people sitting by the dim light of a lantern. He was tired & hungry, wanting to rest and smoke hookah to soothe his nerves-he approached the group rapidly, his stick making a constant sound against the firm ground. The persons sitting turned, as he drew near them, looking anxious- their faces filled with fear growing at his each approaching step. They suddenly started to shriek and got up abruptly, turned around and ran away frantically in different directions. Natha stood astounded, yelling after them to stop but they vanished in the darkness of the night.
Perplexed, Natha slowly walked up to the spot where these men had been sitting. He found two small tin boxes partly rusted and few bundles of notes scattered around. He crouched down to have a closer look and opened the boxes one by one. The contents made him jump with excitement, as the boxes were full of money and assorted jewellery of gold, silver and precious stones. Fresh earth had been dug up creating a small pit, big enough to hold the boxes. Two long rectangular stone-slabs were lying on the either side of the pit that would serve as the cover to make it look like a grave. Natha was amazed at the ingenuity of the thieves and the resourceful way to safely dump their loot.
He looked around but saw no one and quickly collected the scattered bundles of money and put them in the boxes and closing the boxes concealed them under his ‘pheran’*.
He was gasping for breath as he entered the town. He stopped at the small pond to wash his face as he was sweating profusely even on this cold wintry night. This, he thought could easily arouse suspicion. As he stood by the pond the streetlight shone brightly and he saw his reflection in the water. The total façade of his persona reflected a scary picture. Natha clearly understood the reason behind the frenzied reaction of the thieves in the graveyard. His deformed features and the strange swaying gait, long waving hair and the over-sized off-white ‘pheran’ presented a ghostly sight. Natha despised his own reflection as never before but the weight of the two boxes diverted his thoughts. He decided against washing up and walked briskly to his home with his booty.
He entered the street leading to his house, and as he neared the main door, he was taken aback. The curled figure of ‘Roopa’ was lying motionless on the steps beneath the door but hearing his footsteps came suddenly alive. It jumped, coiled and twisted in an ecstatic ballet soundlessly. A strange feeling that ‘Roopa’ knew about tonight’s rendezvous and his clandestine acquisition overwhelmed Natha.
Suraj felt goosebumps all over his body as the long awaited re-union with his parents drew near, increasing his excitement manifolds. He had returned from a prestigious university of America with a gold medal in Economics. He had proved his mettle as a prodigy and had been credited with many awards for his innovative research. Suraj had a bright future ahead as an economist and financial expert, but had chosen to come back to his hometown and his parents whom he revered. He remembered Father Agnel, his House-teacher at the boarding school who had developed immense liking for little Suraj and had extended his patronage to the 6-year-old boy. Father made sure that Suraj led a disciplined and balanced life throughout his schooling. The perfect guardianship of the Father resulted in his excelling at the highest level in academics, paving way for his admission in the American University on full scholarship.
The outer terminal of the airport was crowded with people as he came out, they were shouting his name and raising slogans in his honour. Suraj spotted the motionless figure of his father in the middle of the crowd staring back at him with a strange expression. He had grown old with wrinkles on his face but his eyes were lively and bright beholding the sight of his son with triumph and glory.
The town hall was packed to its capacity with people crowding the aisles. Natha and Shyama were seated in the first row besides the prominent people. Natha suddenly became nostalgic and felt as if he was in a trance. He recalled the night when Gunwati had suddenly died and after completing her last rites, Natha and Shyama had got married. Next year Suraj was born in the City hospital. Natha had experienced the pinnacle of exultation as he saw that the baby was physically perfect. He had vowed that the boy would be kept away from this lecherous society, as he feared that Suraj, being his son might be targeted and haunted.
The people around were amazed when the boy was sent to an expensive boarding school outside the state at a raw age. Everyone questioned in whispers about Natha’s capability to pay for his son’s education. No one knew that the answer lay in the rusted tin boxes lying hidden in Natha’s attic.
The tumultuous applause brought Natha back to the present. The City Mayor was about to address the people. His high-pitched voice echoed in the hall, “Ladies and Gentlemen, today we have amongst us the eminent son of the soil, an economist of international repute who has refused premier - international offers in order to serve his people, the young and dynamic Sh. Suraj Kumar son of our own Sh. Swaraj Nath………………..
Natha did not hear a single word after this, as the only thing audible to him was his real name - Sh. Swaraj Nath. He had almost forgotten his real name as it was shrouded under the burden of sarcasm and insensitivity of the society. Today, the same society had acknowledged his personality and had returned back his identity, honorably. Through the tears that welled up in his eyes he stared at his son on the dais. He thanked Roopa who lay buried in ‘Malkha’ at the same spot that had transformed Natha's life.
The ultimate metamorphosis of the ugly reflection of Swaraj Nath had taken place as his son had bestowed him with the glorious manifestation, which would last forever.
For the readers who do not know:
*Telbal: - A fresh water body famous for delectable fish near Srinagar.
*Aangan: - The common front-yard.
*Vaital Bairav: - A temple of Bairav in Rainawari- Srinagar
*Malkha: - Mass graveyard ground on the outskirts of Rainawari- Srinagar.
*Pheran: - An Over-all knee length garment made out of woolen fabric worn by Kashmiris.