Under the crow’s feet

A year back, the deadly times when the monsoon played hide and seek with the villagers’ beliefs, nobody except Mahesh strongly believed this.

That Thatha had morphed into a crow.

Mind you, he isn’t like any other ordinary crow- the ones that strategically position themselves on tree tops only to soil our neatly oiled and combed heads. He is one among the intelligent kind. Sujatha describes him as the one who drops pebbles into pots of water.

Now, who has seen all that? Tell me? Have you seen a crow drop pebbles into pots of water? Nobody question these stories.

Anyway, if you see one, it should be my Thatha.

A year and ten days ago, Thatha was taken to the centre of our parched farmland where Mahesh and myself usually excite ourselves with a game of Paandi.

There’s a lot of science and maths behind every game we play.’ said Thatha.
We were reminded of his wise words that used to bring untold happiness to the entire village.

We, I mean the battalion of Thatha’s family members, had assembled there to witness another game, a game of life. He was laid flat, head facing skywards so that any moment he could soar up into the clouds. For all the action we imagined, we were quite heavily disappointed. He remained still, peacefully sleeping like a baby nestled in the arms of wooden logs. The dead yellow leaves of trees far away rustled in circles around the pyre like they were paying their last respects seeing our family orbit around Thatha.

I had tried in vain to wriggle out of Appa’s steady grasp to take part in the crazy rituals of the send-off ceremony. His long fingers hand-cuffed me like a prisoner for two whole hours. Mahesh was also there witnessing the whole drama like a machine making measured movements. We were waiting for the slightest signs of wings sprouting from the blazing pyre. Nothing closest to what we imagined happened and unfortunately we weren’t allowed to watch the whole process of metamorphosis to take notes and preserve them for the future generations.

By the way, I forgot to tell you. Mahesh is really a machine. He says he has never cried nor laughed. Even during his birth!

Thatha evoked so much respect when he was a human being and he continues to do so while he is a crow. The villagers, their dark tired eyes gleaming in their sun-burnt shrunken faces, fell at his feet for his blessings, smearing the dust and straightening the crooked lines of fate across their foreheads.

Thatha was the head of the village Panchayat, a committee of 5 that provided justice to every resident of our village. After the meetings, under the cooling shade of the banyan tree, we used to burst into delightful conversations.

How is life after death?

Thatha never once failed to amuse me with his extra-ordinary scientific explanations. That’s why I’m going to become a scientist specialising on crows.

Thatha, why do people die?
Raja, because they are bored of not being able to fly. It’s not just death. Death is something that is shrouded by an element of mystery till date. It leads to a greater transformation and no one knows how it happens. Death helps us to elevate ourselves from the miseries of mankind. Our scriptures say that. Even now, I see my father and fore fathers everyday after sunrise.

Wow Thatha. When will you transform?
Hahaha. When the bird god gives me the power to turn into a crow I suppose. These old limbs have become useless that I cannot walk to the meetings without a stick. Better to die soon and fly as a crow.

But, crow is an ugly bird. Turn into a peacock Thatha. Sujatha loves Peacocks. I can take you to our school and amuse her.
Ah that’s impossible. See, I used to have a thick mop of black hair and so I can turn only into a black crow. The crows live much happier lives than all the other birds. They are in fact very clever. And don’t worry Mahesha. Sujatha is already amused that you attend the Panchayat meetings.

Hmm. What about the bald money-lender you punished in the meeting? He’s been feeding on everyone’s blood and sweat. I know what he’ll transform into. A vulture!


Raja! Excellent thinking! Now, Mahesha, do you know why people around cry when someone dies?

Don’t know Thatha. Why?
It’s because we all shed drops of tears during our birth. It’s the first and the last song we all hear at our moments of entry and exit as human beings.

Aha! We will terribly miss you Thatha if you change into a crow. Especially I will miss your Maths class. Who will help me get good marks and impress Sujatha?
Don’t worry my child. Once I’m a crow, I will constantly shower my blessings. I will always keep an eye on my little prince Mahesh and of course, you Raja, the scientist.

Mahesh and a few others, until this epic transformation, regarded black crows a sign of misfortune. A low mark in the exams would be attributed to the lonely black crow, a common village superstition.

It’s all because of one for sorrow da.

But after Thatha’s transformation, just like the way he used to dispel ignorance of the masses, he managed to change that superstition among students. They knew it hurt our beliefs. Another because of what happened to Mahesh’s performance in the recent exam. His grades had improved magically from a pitiable 11 to a staggering 50 marks out of 100.
The day after the ceremony, we just couldn’t believe our eyes. Thatha had flown to the verandah, the exact spot where he would cuddle himself into a long nap. He was just in time for lunch. Paati was feeding him his favourite rice and brinjal sambhar. My Thatha, being the generous person..oops crow, signalled all the neighbouring crows, for the sumptuous feast. At the sight of a dozen crows gathered at our verandah, Mahesh nudged closer to Paati and pushed a wonderful suggestion. The idea seemed bizarre. But not anymore.

Paati, it’s so nice to see our dear Thatha having your food. It would be even more nice if you could also turn into a crow and give him company soon.

It’s been a few months since Paati transformed into a crow and there is no sign of the old couple at our verandah. Mahesh opines they are on a honeymoon. Everyone in the village is happy with the monsoon season. The village head master is happy with the annual exam results. There has not been any need for Panchayat meetings.

These days, this is what we say when we see two black crows on tree tops.
It’s true. Two is for joy.

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Promising a dream

Amma, when will Appa come home? asked sweet voiced Vrinda.

This had been her daily chant ever since she learned that her Appa had left to Bangalore, the place that her father had once described as a cooler place than her Madras, suddenly without telling Vrinda. Most importantly, she was slightly perturbed that he had not taken her along as he had once promised. Why? she would pester Vidya, gently tugging her saree’s end.

Mrs. Gunasekar would try to explain that her father had gone to attend business meetings, sometimes she would build on it, as a way of assuring his return that he had opened his new office there and that he was very busy with his employees, making it as convincing as possible so that her first daughter would be content with her answers, with her white lies. She would cry afterwards for enhancing her daughter’s memories. She, like every other 7 year old reasoning everything around, would keep going on with the why’s, where’s, how’s, effortlessly and relentlessly stringing one after another as though, even if her mother had explained the truth, it would grant her a better picture. Her mother was used to it everyday and would anticipate her next question with an inexplicable sadness for which she would simply state “in a few days”.

Appa eppa varuva?

She would quietly sit at the farthest corner of their dim-lit narrow kitchen with drooping eyelids, legs and arms folded into almost a subservient posture, tightly hugging her frail body and wait for her mother to finish the day’s chores, while she heard the clock monotonously ticking away each second. Every second that passed brought her memories back. The scooter rides she enjoyed with Appa, the maaladu that he bought her from the roadside sweet shop, the ramayana he would deftly tell her, amusing her with tonal variations.

The most vividly recurrent memory she used to bring back to thinking was the scooter rides in which she would sit in the opposite direction, facing the vehicles behind their scooter, letting her short tangle-free hair fly in all directions while tightly gripping onto the metallic railing at the rear end of the seat. When passer-bys warned her of falling off the old scooter she would pride herself and say “Appa will take care.”  He would explain Vidya that it was not wrong for their daughter to have a different perspective of the world in reverse whenever she chided him for being reckless and foolish. At times their quarrel on mundane matters would go on switching purpose. Vrinda would have fallen asleep meanwhile.

Little Vrinda would recollect the exact voice she had heard two months back on the phone. To her time was incoherently drifting, the sounds of the ticking clock bore no meaning. A few days without his presence looked like a long time now. But seven years since her birth she could bring out only a few images of being with her father, which was not justifiable to her. Though memory was beginning to mould steadily into unforgettable images only recently, she believed it was always like that and  it was time that was confusing and not her evolving memory.

Slowly her memory would metamorphose to fantasies, lulling her into deep sleep. She would imagine only one thing- her father’s yet another promise, a special one to her, coming alive. Gunasekar coming home and characteristically ringing the door bell- a little hastily, carrying a brand new Casio keyboard with him. The one she had asked him as a forever-one time birthday gift when he had pointed out that it was too much to ask for a one year’s birthday gift.

A few months back, he had spoken to her, to her delight, of how much he was missing Vrinda, how eager he was to meet her with her gift. She would mumble something on the telephone and smile, use her fingers to direct her words to her father, trying to articulate her profound happiness. She was holding onto that one final happy memory till she fell asleep.

As a child, everyone found her different. Her mother’s cousin, who was a student of Psychiatry, found Vrinda to be a hyperactive kid. Some praised her as outstandingly intelligent, attributing her traits to her grandfather who was known for his elephantine memory. A few neighbours called her autistic as she couldn’t play with many children of her age. She would fear crowded places, her eyes watered when strangers directly peered into her beautiful brown iris, she was comfortable with very few people, often times with herself, reciting poems in tunes different from those that were taught to her in school.

She was generous with everyone. With Batul, her kindergarten friend, for almost a month, she shared the glazed buns which Appa had sent her through courier, days after the last phone call. She was good at grasping words. Mathematics was hard. She remembered the tough time she had with Appa tutioning her 2-tables, which was way ahead of the school syllabus. That was precious time spent with her father. Imagination would riot her thinking.

Why didn’t they make number 4 look like’3′? Does 3 not look like a half of 8?

She could draw well, way better than children of her age. During the PTA meetings, her art teachers would appreciate her fine motor skills and request her mother to send her to professional art classes at an early age. The best of all was the innate skill she possessed  for playing the keyboard. Her grandfather had once gifted her a tiny battery operated keyboard that was of the size of Vidya’s palm. It came with a scroll with musical notes written for the national Anthem of India, a famous Bollywood song, the happy birthday song, and an English song. Though she did not have the knowledge to decipher the meaning behind the strange designs that were printed on the paper, she would earnestly request Vidya to sing those songs to her and she, in return, would try replicating it, trying out each key, matching the voice with the keys.

Amma sing once more. Please.

She would trace out her mother’s voice with her tiny fingers on the keyboard, gently striking one note at a time, memorizing the sequence with precision, with her left hand firmly holding the edge of the keyboard in place while the right hand quickly worked like the wings of a fluttering butterfly. By the time she had played the entire national anthem, she was already asking for a bigger keyboard as her fingers, that were fast growing, found it hard to strike one key at a time.

She had once visited Royapettah’s famous music store that sold keyboards of various sizes with her father. She randomly pointed to one big box with a bright orange ‘free microphone’ sticker pasted on it. Gunasekhar was hesitant to buy his child the keyboard as a gift, not because he couldn’t afford it, but because it was too severe to gift something that cherished, especially when he was about to change their lives forever. His guilt would solidify into one object that he would regret buying for his own child-he was ready to abandon in few months. He knew it was already so wrong on his part to grow fond over his child when he never intended to create a family with Vidya.

The marriage between Gunasekhar and Vidya was that of an arranged one. Vidya was educated enough to know how far Bangalore was from Madras. The entire marriage was going to fail, shatter his daily life, he believed and that’s more or less what happened. He couldn’t love Vidya as much as he was in love with another woman, more prettier, more educated, more understanding than his wife. He was consoling himself that things would change between Vidya and himself in sometime.

Though their daughter had initially provided a reason for the couple to disagree less, she had equally given them opportunities to escape the reality of living as a family, to create separate memories and separate bonds with her. He had already hinted her that he was no longer interested to continue their relation and that their child was the only hurdle he had to cross. And she did not object because it made little difference to her whether he lived far away or closer to home.The last phone call was made only to listen to his daughter’s soft voice for one last time.

These days she runs to open the door only to receive strangers and curious neighbours. She begins to perceive time and asks her mother, Ms.Vidya, how long is ‘a few days’. She is no longer given ambiguous answers and confounding lies. She goes to bed with the same old memory of the comfortable haze of a known stranger, singing her a lullaby and the song imperceptibly changes to what she had played in her tiny keyboard. She sees herself playing in solitude, swanked by absolute darkness. She sits amidst an endless row of keys radiating a pale white light. She swiftly runs from one end to another, hitting multiple cheerful notes as her fingers graze along its pellucid surface. Time and memory have little effect in this world of hers.

Now, her hopeful fantasy yields to a peaceful sleep.

Those pretty blue eyes

To be brutally honest, I have never had any feelings for this girl since childhood. And something just had to happen to us that I couldn’t even make a friend out of her. I met her that day at Heathrow and she was kind of pale when I waved at her and she was completely bald. I had a flight to catch at 9:30 a.m. I’ll tell you what, I was… no, we were big time perverts. She is supposed to be my second cousin of sorts- like the one you meet once in a year during some family function or vacation. She was elder to me by few months and both of us come from very conservative catholic families- imagine not watching movies or television itself for that matter throughout your childhood.

My children love watching The Simpsons and I think they are not innocent to switch channels exactly when corny things crop up in my presence. Bible was the only book we were given to read. But I would sneak in home some of those good comics and novels and keep them in my old leather bag that nobody would doubt. Man, I never really asked her what she would do at home on weekends. I know that’s kind of terrible thing to do, though I would casually say she had pretty blue eyes.

Anyway, I don’t know if you can relate to us at least 0.1% but I am sure you would’ve gotten irritated as hell to live in sickening reality all the time. Reality was defined to us as being at the service of the Lord. It was unholy to be in a relationship with the opposite sex without parental consent. I did not find this Catholic at all but Rachel’s and my parents did. We weren’t ‘educated’ in co-ed schools because that could spell us so much trouble. So yes we were kind of young and immature and we did all sorts of nonsense sexuality talk whenever we met. I mean this was a little different from those things you talk with your buddies at school. This was more about ‘us’.

I feel a little guilty at heart that I never once questioned her if she really loved me. Because I did not know then if such love could exist and also because I was pretty sure we were doing it for fun. What we did were dirty yet harmless role plays of husband and wife, most kids of our age would have played something like the doctor-doctor, teacher-teacher, oh we played that too, we were sometimes love stricken Romeo and Juliet and other times just second cousins. We would meet at our ancestral house and find a room to do this under the pretext of doing a group study or playing checkers. But I swear that we never crossed our limits. I also remember conveying my best wishes when she had attained her puberty. The heat fizzled out after we stopped meeting each other since I was sent to do higher studies at Netherlands and I thought we were mature enough to realize our folly. The last time I saw her was in my wedding. She asked if she could be my best woman. Anna’s best woman all of 23. I refused because Mitchell-my bestie wanted to be. She gave me a weak hug and and said she loved me and that she will miss me. It never really made sense to me until that day.

I have still not decided to tell my husband what Rachel and I shared in our past. I can’t come up to terms that she loved me when I never even saw her as a great friend. She cried a lot and that felt horrible to me. She said she had just a few months to survive as all her chemo treatments had failed. She asked me for one thing that I was so afraid of. She was waiting at the airport because she knew I would be coming there. I told her of my children and husband and that it was too late to talk about the past. She pressed me with “Please” I cancelled the ticket and decided to put some sense into her and advise her to move on.

A few hours later, I was staring at the ceiling of her bedroom, appalled at what I had done at the same time a little happy for granting her last fantasy. It was the worst thing I had done in 30 years of my life-especially as a mother. To pretend to love a woman as a woman. When I walk past Rachel Schrodinger’s grave I still see those blue eyes smiling at me the way it did two decades back.

The execution

The execution

As a prison electrician of this place, my association with the prisoners is just as short-lived as mayflies. I can count and tell you the number of times I have got disgusted with the job I do, ironically, for a living. It’s not like I can tell my 5-year old daughter what I do at office- those untellable things I’m asked to do to cull out the truth from prisoners.

There were old men who generously heaped compliments for being what the law calls us- an instrument of justice. Mention a word about marrying their daughters, they would run out of unjust excuses.

For the past few months I had been hearing a lot about one notorious old man. His crimes from burglary to assassination were ones to be dissected and relished by the media. Till yesterday evening, I was pretty convinced that he deserved the capital punishment.

For the first time in the history of our prison, he was sentenced to electrocution and I was chosen to execute it.  Mr.Khyser, the officer in charge of Ibrahim -the old man, handed me a cloth bag with his belongings and asked to get rid off it before the fatal event, as he had no family of his own or that’s what was spoken of him.

I opened the bag and saw just a few harmless things inside. A broken comb, an old black and white photograph of a young girl of sixteen, a diary dated 1977 and a faded black woollen shawl. You know, I was immediately intrigued by the diary only to be disappointed with blank crumpled pages. But there was one page, 23rd December 1977, which had writings in Urdu that read,

“I would have been a father this date, Wasia.

A truly bad father.

Remember what you promised to name our child as? I chant his name everyday like a fool! He is my unseen God. I am guilty of abandoning you but you do deserve a better man in life. Time is the biggest thief Wasia.

It keeps running away from everyone robbing good/bad chances from one and giving it to another. I was merely its accomplice and so I had to run away for the good to happen to you. You are a mother now, I hope. The day I shall be hated by our people, may be even by our own child, is not far away. I wish I could not have met you. I wish I had been created a guilt-free animal.

I wish I had escaped time.”

I tore this sheet of paper, kept it inside my shirt pocket along with the photograph and I decided to trace Wasia and hand it to her or his supposed child. What I shall be describing next will only momentarily ruin your mental peace but please do read on. Electrocution, they say gives a painless death, which again is much debatable. I clearly remember that it was a sultry hot April evening. He was led inside the chamber where I had to perform his electrocution. By the time I had reached there he was already strapped onto the wooden chair. A wet sponge was clamped on his head under the metal holder and one under his legs to complete the circuit. His face was covered with a black cloth with an opening for the mouth. His body was tightening as he approached death. “Any last wishes?” I asked like always but this time expected him to say something about the diary. About Wasia.

His loud laughter pierced my thoughts. I couldn’t think of anything else other than that old grainy voice the whole day. The moment before I gave the first wave of shock he cried out “Azhaar! ”

It was nearly 1800 volts at 7.5 Amp current that could bring unconsciousness and brain death simultaneously. I could see his fair skin around the mouth turn pink and his lower jaw froze at an awkward angle. I could feel heat dissipate towards my direction. By the looks of it he was almost half dead. I set the second wave to a lesser voltage as per the instructions and this whole thing lasted for only a few minutes. The room smelt of burnt flesh and the veins under his chest & armpits had burst out and bloodied his white shirt. It was a successful electrocution they say.

Moments later I was crying over the cemented floor. I looked at my hands that had killed the old man. I walked home like a wooden log refusing to roll, pausing every second examining the lines that spread in my calloused palms. “Do not be ashamed, be happy for Allah has been kind to you . You have created a family of your own now.” I spoke to myself. My daughter was fast asleep in my wife’s lap. I took the torn sheet and kissed it deeply.

The realization of the existence of an unseen love cut all logical reasoning within me. I had found the answers to questions that were haunting my existence. I was laughing wildly and told my wife “Time is the biggest thief!” She lovingly ruffled my hair and said “You’re worn out. I can see that Azhaar!”

Dear reader!

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Thank you for stopping by! Those few minutes you spend reading what I’ve written hours together in solitude mean so much to me! I would love to extend a huge THANK YOU to every stranger, acquaintance, friend and influential personalities from whose lives I’ve conveniently taken momentary inspirations, unspoken sorrows,  joys, distilled them to suit my imagination and attempted to weave short stories. Writing, to me, has always been a cathartic joy. If you’d like to share your struggles and life’s trivial pleasures, and want a story written out of it, feel free to share it to my email id vandana31charukesi@gmail. 

Inspire me!

Vandana Guru