Breaking Tradition

Submitted into Contest #44 in response to: Write a story that starts with a life-changing event.... view prompt



Our hearts were thumping hard, beat to beat. Mine was pulsating on my temple while it's was squirting blood all over the shed. I could not peel my eyes off the ghastly fountain. I had narrowly missed my own hand as I brought the cleaver down on its neck. In my left hand, I still held the severed neck, the beak clasped firmly between my thumb and forefinger. Balan, my elder brother, had warned me against looking at it too closely.

"Just do it and walk away. Don't think too much."

Grandma says all creatures have souls, even snakes and insects. I wanted to see the exact moment the hen's soul floated up but I suppose it was too bright in the shed. Unless it fled in that split second my eyes flinched under the onslaught of the crimson spray. I had forgotten to tie its feet and it thrashed about fiercely for what seemed like a long time. Realizing it could not be whole again, it eventually gave up and lay still.

"And no matter what you do, never.......just don't look into its eyes."

I looked into its eyes. Brought the little head level and looked at the angry orange beads. I wondered if it had a name or a son; had feelings for that son. I realized my mouth had been open for a while. It felt dry but the eyes felt wet. Tears were gathering but I couldn't let the dam breach. They were all probably watching through the crevices in the planks. Grandpa too. I could feel their eyes drilling into my back, as were the hen's in front.

I swallowed hard, placed the cleaver on the stool and turned around. I dared not wipe my eyes on my shirt sleeve lest I ruin the scarlet graffiti on my face. They'd want to see. Balan said so. When he turned 12, he had to go through this ritual as well. He was born only two years before me but he is muscly and loud enough, to pass off as five years older. I remember him emerging from the shed laughing, even before I finished eating the mango. Grandpa had yanked him clean off the ground and hoisted him with immense pride. It was while perched there that Balan tossed a ball at me. It landed some distance from me and rolled in the dust, coming to a halt near my feet. It had the same orange eyes.

I trudged back and just as I was about to push the rickety door, it flew open and Balan let out a whoop of triumph. He came behind me, grabbed my bloodied left wrist and thrust it into the sky, affirming my victory. Grandpa was among the onlookers. Beaming, he took a step forward and beckoned me with both hands. I ran to him and hugged him. Since it was the first time I was seeing him that morning, I bent down to touch his feet, as is customary in our tribe. We take the blessings of elders every morning in that manner and Balan says it is good exercise for the back too. The rest of the day was lost in a daze of celebration. Amma (affectionate term for mother) cooked my hen with a lot of potatoes in my favourite tomato sauce with bhoot jolokia, the viciously hot pepper of our region. Afterwards, we sat in the shade of the giant peepal tree in our yard, sweating out the peppers and chomping on watermelons to soothe the burning.

Abba (affectionate term for father) would have been thrilled to see me come of age. Already his memory is beginning to fade. If it wasn't for the picture Amma keeps by her bed, I might even have forgotten what he looks like. I knew he would come to me in my dreams that night to tell me how proud and happy he was. But the orange unblinking eye would not let me sleep. It didn't say a word but just stared at me with fiery intensity. The nauseating thwack of the cleaver still rang in my ears. Abba must have waited and waited for me to fall asleep and ultimately left when the first birds started twittering.

Grandma says the soul waits for thirteen days before ascending to the heavens. During this period, the soul achieves closure by gradually relinquishing all earthly attachments. Floating a few meters above the ground, it observes its family and arranges with divine forces to give them love and strength. Sometimes, in rare cases, it is unable to disengage fully and opts to stay back permanently, protecting its loved ones; thus sacrificing its own chance for rebirth. I wonder if Abba's soul is still around. He passed five years ago. If his soul is here, perhaps it will apologize on my behalf to the hen's soul. I didn't kill it for pleasure. I was just doing my ordained duty.

The next few weeks were blissfully busy. My initiation ceremonies continued. The doors previously closed to me, miraculously began to prise open. I was taken to the temple of the fearsome Goddess Kali where the head priest chanted sacred hymns and anointed me with the holy ash, marking my shoulders and navel with tantric patterns. He smeared my forehead with sweet smelling sandalwood paste, validating my induction as an Antru. That was our family occupation. Every tribe needed farmers, cobblers, ironsmiths and antrus. We conduct sacrifices in all the villages of our tribe. It was not a job for everyone.

The sandalwood powder mixed with rose water was meant to awaken my third eye and grant me wisdom. It was so intoxicatingly fragrant, I wanted to taste it but I was distracted by the mesmerizing idol of Goddess Kali. I had never been allowed in the inner sanctum before. She was twice the size of the priest and struck a fiercely daunting pose. She had four arms, deep blue skin and piercing eyes. Her bright red tongue stuck out, probably dripping with blood. She wore a garland of skulls and a belt of dismembered arms. In one of the hands she held a machete and in another, the severed head of a rakshasa (a type of demon from Hindu mythology).

Goddess Kali is the patron saint of antrus. Grandpa visits this temple every morning with an offering of single red hibiscus flower. It is the only flower acceptable to her, as the petals represent her tongue. Sometimes he drags Balan along, particularly on days when Balan is required to perform a sacrifice. Grandpa is too old now and his hands shake constantly. During the past year, Grandpa hardly accompanied him to the sacrificial ceremonies. If Abba were alive, Balan would doubtless be home with me, attending school or doing chores. No one talks about Abba, not even Balan. Whenever in the past I have asked him, he just smacks me playfully on my head and does something silly to make me laugh. I wish I were strong like him. That dull sound of the cleaver slicing through the hen's neck still haunts me while Balan has already slaughtered countless sheep, ducks, a few ox and one baby girl. He sleeps without a care. Sometimes he even laughs in his sleep. Amma says that he takes after grandpa and that I am more like Abba.

After the initiation at the temple, Balan shepherded me to the old railway warehouse near the station. My next task was to fashion my very own machete, from one of the discarded pieces of rail track. He had already identified and hidden a perfectly sized segment for me. I love him so much. He helped me trim it with a hacksaw, to manageable proportions. However, it took me weeks to sculpt it into shape. My hands developed calluses from the pressure of sharpening it, on the stones by the river. When it was completed, you could see all the colours of the rainbow glistening in its sharp edge. I crafted a bamboo handle for it and secured it with fine waxed string. Balan had inherited Abba's machete. It was heavy, a work of art, even better than Grandpa's. Balan would clean it every day with a piece of leather soaked in oil.

Amma and grandma often agreed that I remind them of Abba. Like last week, during dinner, they exchanged glances and remarked that the way I lick my fingers while eating rice and curry, is exactly how Abba would. They also say, I am gentle like him. I don't know if antrus are meant to be gentle but their observations make me feel good and sad at the same time. I wish I could see for myself how Abba licked his fingers or scratched his back or snored after a heavy meal. I wonder if he would be proud of my machete. I promised myself to make a better one when I am older.

As spring wore on, Balan was increasingly in demand. There was no sign of rain-clouds and anxiety was rampant across all villages. There were sacrifices to be done in each village, sometime multiple ones. In every season, some or other God needed to be appeased. Whether you crave the birth of a son or desire an enemy tribe destroyed, there was always a ready sacrifice prescribed by the priests. Business was good and Balan would frequently take me along as an apprentice. On the way home we would wash ourselves and our clothes in the river. While our clothes hung on the branches to dry, he would tell me stories of the exploits of our ancestors, serving under glorious kings.

Yesterday, sitting naked at our favourite spot by the river, I caught him off guard and asked about Abba. He fell silent and fixed me with a stare, appraising whether I could be trusted. I held his gaze until his face relaxed.

"What do you know?"

"That he was called to sacrifice an enraged bull, to save the life of one of the village chiefs. But it was not an auspicious day as per the astrological configuration. The bull was possessed with evil spirits and it gored Abba."

Balan laughed. "Yes that is what I was told too."

"" My temple began to throb.

"It was him who was possessed by the evil spirits, not the bull. Abba simply refused to perform the sacrifice", he said disdainfully. "Grandpa was furious and saved the day by jumping in and beheading the animal with an axe. The tribal chief banished Abba because he brought shame on the family. They say he now works as a carpenter in the city."

I maintained a shocked expression to allow Balan the full satisfaction of his dramatic revelation but I was delirious with joy inside. Unable to contain my excitement, I ran and jumped into the river. I couldn't let Balan see my tears. 


Notes : Goddess Kali is symbolic of Darkness -reference to both her skin tone as well as human ignorance. She is worshipped as the destroyer of evil, including the evil of ignorance.

Bhoot Jolokia entered Guinness Book of records in 2007 as the hottest pepper in the world. Its name literally means "Driving away evil spirits from the body"

Peepal tree is also known as the Bodhi tree, since it was under one such tree that Gautam Budhha found enlightenment.

June 02, 2020 12:43

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Tim Law
11:19 Jun 13, 2020

Praveen thank you for allowing us a glimpse into your world. A great tale that rings with truth and experience.


Praveen Jagwani
10:00 Jun 15, 2020

Thank you Tim :)


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Rhondalise Mitza
03:20 Jun 12, 2020

Very interesting; I learned a lot from reading! :)


Praveen Jagwani
09:59 Jun 15, 2020

Thank you Rhonda !


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