The schools had announced yet another mid-day holiday. Vasu was jubilant; the dreaded Math test was due in an hour’s time and as usual he wasn’t prepared.
“Thanks to the Babri masjid, we are having a wonderful time this year, isn’t it?” said Vasu gleefully.
Ajay and Nadeem agreed whole heartedly and happily the trio walked homewards. Normally they would have loitered around the market place instead of heading straight home, but then this was not really a normal day, what with processions and police jeeps completely taking over the streets.
“Lets go up in the evening,” suggested Ajay as they parted and his suggestion received instant concurrence.
The Hanuman temple atop the black rocky hill was their favorite hang-out destination. After sunset there were hardly any people around the temple and as darkness descended upon the surroundings, even the mundane lights of the township spread below, brought about a beautiful Diwali-like look from this vantage point.
Ajay, Nadeem and Vasu studied in the same school and had been the best of pals since they were five or six. They had discovered the beauty of this spot some two years back when one day, simply for lack of anything better to do, they had decided to visit the Hanuman temple. Nadeem was reluctant at first but as always, Ajay managed to convince him.
“Don’t be stupid. We are not going there to pray. We’ll just take a walk around the place, that’s it,” said Ajay in one of his superior tones and Nadeem gave in.
From then on, they lost count of the number of visits that they had made to the place. They soon found that their minds felt much freer in the openness of the hilltop than on the narrow streets of their locales. Stories and discussions flowed with greater ease at this place high above their monotonous routine and soon storytelling became an essential part of their temple visit.
Vasu had chosen a horrible murder tale for the day. He went on and on about how a maniac had cut open his victim and stashed away the body parts in a sack till finally the police acted smart. Ajay who could never share his friends’ enthusiasm for such horrific tales had been actively thinking of his uncle Mihir’s innumerable adventure tales, trying to select one that would outdo the murder story.
Ajay was a wonderful story teller. His vivid first-person descriptions in a perfectly modulated voice, and the emotions of his characters, portrayed flawlessly on his expressive face, always made his friends look forward to his narratives. As their faces now turned eagerly towards him, his mind was spontaneously made up about his choice for the evening.
“Well…….. this is a story in similar settings,” he began. “Its about four young friends, Lalu, Mihir, Raju and Patta, seeking some adventure and eventually spending the night in one such temple.
It was the season of wonderful juicy mangoes and every evening these four friends met and decided upon their adventure spot for the night. That night they chose the biggest orchard of the region; it was about three miles to their East, with two villages to be crossed in-between.
‘Why go so far?’ remarked Lalu reluctantly.
‘Lalu, just taste their mangoes once and you will be eager to walk those three miles every day,’ replied Mihir.
‘How do you know, have you tasted?’ asked Lalu suspiciously.
‘Ok forget it then,’ replied Mihir. ‘Mangoes are after all mangoes. I don’t mind a good haul from even the neighbor’s orchard.’
Mihir had hit the bull’s eye. Whoever says all mangoes are the same? Lalu could tell one from the other blindfolded, sometimes without even biting into the juicy pulp, simply from the smell and feel of it. His mouth already watered from the thought of the heavenly taste that had evaded him so far.
‘Ok if you think so greatly of it, I’m sure it must be worth tasting. Lets go,’ he said sheepishly and the others couldn’t help laughing at their foodie friend.
‘As if it’s only for me that you all are undertaking this three mile journey,’ remarked Lalu as they headed towards the main road.
Whenever venturing into unknown territory, they always took the main road for as far as possible. One never knew when one might step on eggs of snakes or tails of scorpions or even land into muddy ditches. The main road, though with its own share of potholes, was safer as the steady stream of human and cattle footsteps along with the infrequent motor vehicles mostly kept the snakes away.
Although it was not a new moon, the night sky was dark. They walked past houses and fields and ponds, switching on the torch every now and then, to ensure that they weren’t stepping on danger. In sometime, they left the potholed road and turned to take a shortcut through the paddy fields. They had to walk in a single line, one behind the other, as they moved ahead on the narrow pathways between the fields. Eight steady legs thumping on the ground was sure to keep the snakes away, they believed.
They crossed acres and acres of fields spread all around, sparsely interspersed with orchards big and small and finally reached their destination. The enchanting smell of the sweet fruit filled their nostrils and the four stopped to inhale to their heart’s content.
‘They allow the birds and animals to have their share, it seems. Hundreds of fruits ripped open and pecked into, I’m sure. Otherwise, this smell wouldn’t have been so strong,’ suggested Mihir.
‘Lets get into action,’ said Lalu happily and the friends quickly split zones and dispersed, each into his collection area.”
“Let me point out here,” said Ajay, “that they not only had their fill, up on the trees, but also hoarded a few for the rest of the night.”
Vasu and Nadeem sighed aloud. “What fun yaar, what a wonderful life they had. Wish we could experience some such….” said Vasu longingly, thinking of ripe mangoes.
Ajay had literally carried them off to that sweet juicy night in a village with zero electricity, mud roads stretching for miles and snakes peeping out of their holes, here and there. How different their own little town looked, they thought sadly. Leave aside an orchard full of mangoes, they’d never had the fortune of plucking any ripe fruit from its natural origins. Mid sized brick houses and dirty lanes full of litter, scenes of cows, dogs and children alike committing nuisance anywhere and everywhere was all that would meet the eyes in their little town. They wondered if places like those that Ajay always described in his stories really existed.
This hill was the only exception to their dull drab existence and each of the boys looked forward to these visits. Of late, thanks to the Babri masjid issue, they got to visit the lone beauty spot of their district more frequently. Almost every other day there would be news of building tension and flaring violence. Schools had to be shut down on several occasions and sometimes at a stretch for almost a week. The parents were worried as studies were suffering but the children were happy. Sometimes, the three of them even debated which option would earn them the longest holiday – demolition of the masjid or construction of the Ram temple or the murder of a political leader.
Nadeem never took sides on any discussion related to the masjid issue however much Ajay and Vasu tried to convince him of their friendship that transcended the boundaries of religion. They were friends, he never doubted that, but religion was not an easy barrier to cross, he could feel the barrier each day of his life, as people pointed out the differences between them and us.
The cool breeze that had sprung up carried dust to their eyes and they moved inside the hall where the deity stood. Nadeem looked quizzically at the mid-sized statue of Hanuman. Living in this Hindu majority locality, he knew as much about these Hindu deities as any of his other friends. He knew that this ardent devotee of Lord Ram was worshiped with equal fervor by the Ram bhakts. The orangish color of the deity brought back to his mind the scenes of the rallies on the street that morning. Hoodlums who had suddenly turned into protectors of the Hindu faith, marched across the streets on foot and bikes, sporting orange bandanas and shouting “Jai Shree Ram” and slogans in favor of the temple construction. Never before had these words sounded sinister to his ears. Many a times he had seen people greet each other with “Jai Shree Ram” almost like the “A salam alaikum” that his family members preferred. But the thundering slogans and spiteful look on the faces of those uttering the name of Ram almost like a war cry, had sent shivers down his spine that morning.
Ajay who had been observing Nadeem could see that he was completely lost in his own thoughts. He could of course broadly guess what it was and hastened to drive away any religious unpleasantness that might crop up between them by waving his hands in front of Nadeem’s still eyes.
Nadeem’s spell was broken soon enough and he blushed, not knowing why. “Don’t you want to listen to what happened next?” asked Ajay.
“Of course. Continue Ajay, we’re listening,” replied Nadeem. “The floor is so cool, lets relax.” Saying so, he sprawled completely on the dusty floor. Vasu followed suit with a “Yes Ajay continue ” and spread out by Nadeem’s side.
“So, the four of them ate to their heart’s content and had hardly proceeded a few meters when Raju suddenly pointed towards something. ‘Look! What’s that? A temple?’
The four moved closer and saw that it was indeed a temple, an old Kali temple, the black shining deity of the goddess somehow clearly visible even in the darkness. The structure looked old, ancient in fact, but the garlands around the deity and the lamps and other essential worship artifacts indicated that the goddess was still worshiped.
‘There may be a tube well around, let’s go and wash’ said Lalu optimistically.
The juices that had trickled down while devouring the mangoes had dried up by now and his whole body from the mouth downwards felt sticky. Lalu was always the messiest. He couldn’t eat even one mango without soiling his shirt.
‘I’m tired,’ said Raju slopping down on the dusty temple step. ‘You go around looking for a tube well, I’ll wait here.’
‘Me too,’ put in Patta and joined Raju on the step.
‘Its dark Lalu, don’t venture too much, you might step on a snake,’ warned Mihir. The word of caution was accepted by Lalu. He quickly turned back.
‘I feel sticky all over, a little water would help,’ he said reluctantly.
‘Ok lets see,’ said Mihir and moved straight towards the deity. He picked up a small bronze pot by the side of the deity and flashed his charming smile victoriously.
‘Are you crazy Mihir?’ remarked a shocked Raju. ‘You call that water?’
‘Why?’ asked an amused Mihir. ‘Its water all right and Ma Kali is sure to get it refilled in the morning. What’s the problem?’
They all knew that it was a very big problem but none of them wanted to admit their fears. Fearless young men stealing mangoes from people’s orchards but afraid of the wrath of Gods wasn’t a very good combination, they knew that. If only Mihir would not try out his blasphemous ideas from time to time………..But Mihir had already sniffed the problem and there was no hiding it from him.
‘You pathetic people, you are afraid that Ma Kali will be angry with us for using up her water! Educated…...is that what you call yourself……….my soon-to-be graduate friends?’ Mihir spat out the words with such contempt that Patta’s blood boiled.
‘And what are you? Why don’t you wash yourself with that water instead of making Lalu the scapegoat?’ cried Patta.
‘Scapegoat!’ cried out Mihir in disbelief. ‘Lalu needed water that’s why I offered to help. You think I cannot use this water for myself. I could wash my feet with this water for all I may care………’ retorted an angry Mihir. ‘But………..’
‘But what?’ replied Patta, returning the contempt. ‘You are afraid but won’t admit. You want fun at other’s expense.’
Mihir felt exasperated. Did Patta really think so? He inhaled deeply trying to cool the fire rising within.
‘I am an atheist Patta. This water to me is no different from water from any other source. But I can see that you all are mortally afraid of the wrath of Ma Kali. And I didn’t want to subject you to that. But if you challenge me, I’ll go ahead and show you what I’m capable of doing. Don’t blame me later for not having shown respect to your strange beliefs.’
Raju felt all charged up. Could Mihir really do it? Even he liked to call himself a non-believer but this act of blasphemy……no he couldn’t do it, he didn’t have the guts and he knew it.
‘Challenge, challenge’ urged Raju.
Lalu said nothing but squirmed with discomfort. Why did they have to pick up such points to fight over? Who knew what calamity would descend upon them for even harboring such thoughts.
‘You don’t mind, sure?’ asked Mihir to the group for the last time.
‘Why should we?’ asked Patta, still sure that Mihir would back out at the last minute.
‘Exactly. The sin will be mine, not yours,’ replied Mihir. ‘But tomorrow if your Gods decide to punish us with a cyclone, not just mine but your houses might also get blown away. Don’t hold me responsible then.’
‘Coward!’ cried Patta. ‘He doesn’t really have the guts, all empty threats……..’
‘It doesn’t need guts, only a rational mind’ replied Mihir icily, struggling hard to keep his hands away from Patta. He walked over to an edge of the temple floor, stuck out his leg and calmly poured the water over it while scrubbing it clean.
Mihir’s awestruck audience sat numb as he strode back to the deity once again and lowered the empty pot from where he had picked it up. Lalu stared helplessly at the puddle by their side while Patta sat still, analyzing if the sin were indeed only Mihir’s.”
Ajay’s audience were as dumbstruck as the friends they could see in their minds. Stealthily he got up and picked up a broken milk can that he had seen around the corner and deftly moved behind the Hanuman statue. His friends lying on the floor had possibly not noticed his movements and Ajay continued his story from behind the deity.
“That night was spent under the temple roof with three out of the four friends anxiously waiting for a disaster to strike any moment. Lalu silently prayed to the Gods for forgiveness. Now whether the Goddess had indeed forgiven them or whether it was a victory of Mihir’s atheism, whatever it was, the night passed uneventfully. Before the first signs of dawn, they quietly slid out of the orchard.”
Ajay stopped and a sudden silence engulfed the temple. The breeze that had started gently few moments back had gathered momentum by now. Nadeem and Vasu got up rubbing their eyes, for the dust from the floor not only covered their bodies but also stung their eyes. A sudden streak of lightning flashed across the sky and within moments the thunder ripped apart the silence. At precisely that moment, Ajay caught hold of the rope dangling from the temple bell above and tugged hard at it, sending out a startling big boom.
“Jai Ma Kali!” he shouted into the broken can and the metallic words reverberated in the stormy darkness. Nadeem and Vasu jumped up with a start. Where was Ajay, they couldn’t see him around.
“Jai Bajrangbali!” Out came another faceless chant and again the bell boomed in unison. The words seemed to be emanating from all around the empty hall.
“Jai Shree Ram!” echoed yet another piercing cry and again the bell pealed through the stormy darkness.
Nadeem and Vasu were now panicky. What was going on? Would they be punished for the blasphemy of Mihir? Were the Gods taking their revenge now? Where was Ajay, had he already left? Their palms felt sweaty and they moved closer to each other.
The chants gave way to a deep resounding laughter. Ha…..Ha.….Ha came the measured syllables followed by their haunting echo. And then, suddenly the echo was gone and the thick metallic laughter changed into a chuckle and out stepped Ajay from his hiding.
Nadeem and Vasu were too shocked to react. Their hearts still thumped inside their shirts. And it took them quite awhile to realize what a fool Ajay had made of them!
They kicked Ajay’s bums by turns, all the way downhill but by now they had managed to laugh at themselves. Big drops were coming down the skies and as they hurried towards home, Ajay shouted out one last “Jai Shree Ram” and sped before Nadeem’s hurl could hit him.
Each lay awake for a long time that night as the scenes of the fun filled evening marked its permanent impression upon their grey cells. Ajay wondered what his pious mother would have to say about uncle Mihir’s outrageous act.
Nadeem tossed about in bed; sleep evaded him that night. He couldn't help wondering if they would have all laughed so heartily over the events of that evening had he been the storyteller. Would Shree Ram have taken offence then?