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.’
A Thyestean feast.
But indeed. Hope you enjoyed it!
Fate had returned with its fang.
oh, that is so gross…
I adore folklore – it has such wonderful oddity and bizarre wisdom.
Thanks for the read.
I’m sorry about your father. It is especially hard to lose a parent. Glad you have lots of memories of him. He sounds like he was an interesting fellow.
I believe the grief at his passing has found its level now. Although the memories keep hitting the heart at random intervals. I am happy you enjoyed the tale.
You have presented the essence of an era, Uma
Have I, Derrick? I will take solace in your observation.
I agree with Derrick, such treasures were in your father’s memory. The story is a window into another time. Fascinating.
Ginene, he had told us hundreds of such stories. Sometimes, when he was not overly tired, we would sit around and prompt him to tell us a story, or an anecdote. He had quite a few paranormal experiences too which he shared sparingly. He could get quirky with his utterances though.
Oh, I wish I had met him. I bet I would have loved him.
I am sure, he would have told you a story or two!
Pate and pâté are the same word!
I see now where you get your creative genes – the flourish of phrase, the rock of yore lore, the ease with tomorrow…
My parents’ span of change were similar to your father’s. I think the future is going to show what a gigantic embrace they made of change… microwaves, remotes, dvds, computers, cars… extraordinary.
Bruce, our parents were wedged into transitional times, just as you say. They must have seen many a magic come true in their lifetimes, such as remote controls, etc.I had never noticed the connection between ‘pate’ and ‘pâté’. Now that you have pointed it out, perhaps it explains why the truckers of India are so fond of converting pates into pâté! But I reckon the theme is not unworthy of a yorker at Weave a Web…
I’m always out for a duck, and usually it’s an LBW! You should retell in writing as many of your father’s stories as you can remember. My parents were not story tellers, but my cousins’ grandmother (on the non-related side) would sit us under a tree in the garden and tell us stories for hours. I think it was a way of getting the kids out of the house, but it was spell-binding yet I can’t remember a single one!
You have been concentrating on flash fiction —Super Overs of sorts of the T-20 format —but you can easily hit a double ton as in your book. I will try and write some of the stuff my father passed down to me. How could you forget stories that held you spell bound for hours?
I remember the suspense and terror of it all – wolves approaching and getting closer to the village for e.g. But I can’t remember the stories!
And now we have stories of another kind, wolves of another kind…
While I admire your story telling skills, I’m having trouble hold back my barf.
I pray to god that my fate is toothless.
I hoped you’d identify with the wrath of the lady, but here you are engaging in bad karma… The Brahmin of course never touched the breakfast.
My God.. That surely had a grisly ending. Very riveting though. Thanks for sharing
Fate can be cruel and ruthless to some of us. That is what my father wanted to point out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
You have once again proven your skill as a writer…and proven your father as a master of tales. I’m reminded of a wonderful statement by American writer Louis Auchincloss: “A writer’s life is his capital.” You are a rich, rich man.
To that extent, I will relish in my riches tonight —thanks for the glittering compliment, Molly!
You know what I would have really liked Uma Shankar? Listen to your father tell stories in Hindi. How I miss HIndi!
Sadly, quite like those stories, my father is just a memory. Hindi’s sun is on the descendant too.
You’re a cut above the rest, my friend.
You humble me, my friend!
I’m glad you remembered a story your father told you. I enjoyed the writing more than the story itself.
Such joy, USP. 🙂
You shouldn’t even think about discontinuing all this.
Thank you so much for the tale and more than that, for the writing in true USP-style. 🙂
It is hard to forget the stories your parents told you in your childhood. Many thanks for the bundle of joy your compliment bestowed upon me. 🙂
That was a fascinating story indeed, Umashankar. My maternal grandfather was the story man of our family. My father is more the facts man.
I was awed by the finality of fate. Later on when I read Thomas Hardy’s novels, I’d keep getting reminding of the head on the heath.
It is really interesting how dark these old folk tales could be. Not the sanitised versions we read in Amar Chitra Kathas. I once read a comment about the grisly unwholesomeness of folk tales and presentation of life in all its darker glory.
I liked how you combined old memories and stories and gave us this gem.
Stories are a mirror of the times. Life had to be harder in older ages with death and devastation only a snap away, and the folklore often reflects that. You are right about the post being partially a reminiscence. Thank you, Subroto.
I have never met a real storyteller in my life. My grandparents only told me the tales of their own, but it was fascinating nevertheless. I wish I wrote down everything. What a wise man your father was. He had such a hard life, but his heart never hardened.
Your observation sums up the spirit of my father. You have a sensitive soul, my friend! I believe the increasing preoccupation with the fabricated complexities of our cultures is killing the art of storytelling. Cinema, television, internet and now the social media, they have done their bit to muffle the raconteurs.
Thankfully, some people are born storytellers 🙂
Though the folktale is disturbing, your post is warm and thoughtful. I have also been reflecting on the changes my parents (both thankfully still living) have seen in their lifetimes: my mother has just celebrated her eightieth birthday which brings to mind such reveries. Their early lives did not include such rich mysteries and histories as your own father’s but childhood would have been so very different from the lives of children today. My father – like yours – embraced technology and continues to do his best to maintain a level of technical competence. My mother has never chosen to explore what benefits it might offer her. She is happier with her old traditions and familiar ways. Thanks for this post umashankar; I enjoyed it very much.
The folktale harks back to times when people were resigned to their fates in primitive societies. You are indeed blessed to be able to hold the hands of your parents. I trust our parents have gone through turbulent transitions —’paradigm shifts’— and have been able to adapt themselves marvellously. I am afraid I may not have even half the resilience. Thank you for your kind words.
Oh my god. Sir, never in the wildest of my dreams I could have imagined such an end to this story.
Don’t mind, but would you like to explain if it was just a random tale or it had any relationship with the introduction that you gave before the folklore.
Brilliantly narrated though
In 2012, a girl was raped for hours by six men including the driver in a moving bus in Delhi. She was ravaged and brutalised in every possible manner. After the act, her entrails were pulled out with a crow bar through her private parts so that she could die, which she did. Are you aware the cruellest of the butchers was the so-called ‘minor’ who is freely roaming the streets today? But then what else do you expect from a society that has gone bankrupt on justice? It is precisely in situations like this that I remember the fatalistic folktale narrated by my father.
Sir to be honest, reading this comment of yours gave me goosebumps.
Would you mind if I share this story and your comment as well
You think that will pierce the hide of our fellow humans? In 2013 I wrote the following post after the terrible rape-cum-butchery:
A Hole in My Pyjamas
Guess where do we stand today?
Thank you for sending the link of “A hole in my pyjamas”. It is right on the point.
And yeah not much has changed. But as they say “उम्मीद पे दुनिया कायम है”. So we could hope for things to get better.
And one more thing, the more I read you the more I get improved. And till the time I can read, I will keep on reading your posts.
Thank you once again
I have lived a life irreparable sheltered – I feel like Caliban in the presence of Prospero – these experiences are so beyond my comprehension that I stand humbled and agog and useless… I cannot heave my heart into my mouth (as Cordelia says) and I hope I don’t suffer a similar fate… The rest is silence…
Bruce, we are all Calibans in the presence of our fates. Why does the drum come hither?
Interesting account. I would love to dream of a different ending. I too have lost my father. Time heals it a bit. However, it had profound changes in me and was one of the reasons for me to follow my passion.
I hope you can recollect and pen down all the stories you heard from your dad. The sudden changes that has swept India, which we call modernity, has also resulted in our roots getting cut off and a civilisation loses its moorings. Retelling of our old stories will hopefully serve as a bridge to our past.
Thanks to the brigands of crooked politicians clamouring for the last ounce of blood our civilisation has, we many never get to the set our sight on our lost ethos again. I am sorry about your father, it is a pain that most of us encounter at some point in our lives, a wound that remains wedged in out guts till we die.
Have to agree. For many of us our parents’ generation has witnessed momentous change. Transitioning from a slave to a free people. The second world war. Early wars of an unsteady nation. Poverty, famine, hunger. We owe a lot to them.
And their cheese was not only moved many times, it was transformed to chalk and chillies. They were millennial people.
The tale was quite intriguing and left me slightly perplexed too but your comments to other readers helped understand. The fate certainly is ruthless to some more than it is to others.
Totally love the way you response to your readers, learning a lot from your blog.Thanks
There is no telling what fate can do to one. Thanks for stopping by, Snigdha.
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