As I look back at the life of my departed father, I realise how he had been a part of the transitional era that stood with a foot in the mysteries of the yore and the other into the increasingly scientific modernity. During his childhood, he had huddled with his siblings and grandparents around dimly glowing braziers of cow-dung cakes on many a chilly evening. His village was untouched by roads, radio or electricity, as were most other rural districts at the time. The secluded communions were veritable mines of folklore and fables, and of stories true and mythical, about deities and earthlings and those who exist in between, and of ghosts, witches and jinns that roam the nights, and imperious British officers on horsebacks who rode away with the dusk of the Empire.
Towards the end of his life, he became fond of his flip-open phone, he had a bunch of television serials as favourites, and he was aware of the information available on the world-wide-web. His personality had a liminal aura reminiscent of the two worlds. He was fond of muttering quaint adages embedded in terse poems. Indeed, there were the times he would wrap up an argument with some exotic couplet to the exasperation of those left guessing the reference. I remember when a string of misfortunes befell one of our neighbours, I was quite foxed by his utterance, ‘But Fate will return with its fang’, and I was impelled to ask him to kindly explain. And thus spake my father:
‘Once in olden times when few were rich and most were poor, a Brahmin lived on the outskirts of a village with his cantankerous wife in a hut. The Brahmin had acquired a rare knowledge of the script with which fates are stamped on palms and pates of humans. He had been able to eke out a living by vaguely pronouncing the fortunes and misfortunes of those curious about their futures.
Since fates written once were like scars on the face of a mountain for eternity, he ran out of folks to whom he could read out their lives. In his quest for subsistence, he had to venture away farther and farther to render his services. He visited many villages, towns and settlements, travelling on foot all the time, with his tote bag hanging to his side. He earned the respect of all, men and women, old and young, the mighty and the downtrodden. Even those with terrible days awaiting them wouldn’t get angry with him because of his mellifluous tongue. His own fortune on those excursions varied. Sometimes he would get the odd coin for his travails, at others he would get a pound of puffed rice, or just a shrivelled coconut. He was once given a gold coin by a warlord to whom he had predicted a male heir. Then there was the time when a trader had given him an entire year’s rations and he had to hire a camel for the journey home. Each time though, he faithfully carried back his earnings to his waiting wife, who was fond of scouring his tote bag for the odd thing waiting inside it for her.
Once on his way back from a rather fruitless venture to a hamlet across a desert, he was startled to come upon a decapitated head of a young man on a stretch of heath. More than the misfortune of the young man coming to a grisly end such as that, he was dumbstruck by what he read on his forehead:
Death in desolate sands
under a baking foreign sun,
but Fate will return with its fang.
The Brahmin was never before presented with such a riddle in his life. The man was brought to death in a most cruel manner, and what else lay in sore for him? Overcome by curiosity and awe, he stashed the head in his tote bag for a detailed scrutiny at a later time and resumed his journey. It was late in the night when he reached his hut. He could already hear the jackals discussing the imminent battle with the neighbouring kingdom.
It was a sultry night of summer and all his wife could give him for food was a quarter of baked yam and cool water from the pitcher standing in the corner. He stepped out of the hut to sleep under the overhang of the thatch and fell in a deep sleep. Soon he was dreaming of drums being beaten in his honour as he was welcomed in the courts of one king after the other. As the night progressed, his dreams shifted places and colours but the rhythmic booming continued. So, he smiled in his sleep and blessed his wife for pounding puffed rice in her wooden mortar, which would be served to him in breakfast with sweetened curd.
As it happened, the Brahmin was close enough to the truth about his wife using the pestle to crush something in the mortar, but it was certainly not his favourite dish in making. As was her wont, she had examined the contents of his bag on that night too and was aghast to find a human head. Much horrified as she was, she couldn’t wait for his waking up to explain the bizarre package. Realising he was a scholar of unmatched depths, she was convinced there was something priceless hidden inside the skull, perhaps diamonds that would end their poverty for ever. Unable to restrain herself, she pounded the decapitated head in the mortar till it was reduced to chutney. Ashamed and enraged at the outcome, she served it to her husband in the morning.
Of course, it hit the Brahmin like a lightening when instead of his favourite puffed-rice and sweetened curd his eyes rested on the muddy mincemeat. Fate had returned with its fang.’