Sunday mornings are usually quite a dull affair, especially if you are on the wrong side of 70. Now seventy-eight years old, Sunday mornings for him meant just sitting on the little balcony adjacent to his room. Since the balcony opened up only to his room, it was, for all intents and purposes, an exclusive extension of his room. That was where he spent most of his waking life these days, scrutinizing the world through his own looking glass, partially smeared by over seven decades of judgement and prejudice. But as he would’ve told you with his characteristic throaty chuckle, old people rarely bother with the world judging them; judgement is almost an exclusive vice of the old.
This Sunday morning was no different. As he waited for his morning tea to simmer down to a safe temperature, he watched Amit Gupta washing his new fancy car. Although the gravity of the four interlinked rings on the car was lost on him, the pride and smugness of his neighbour weren’t. He, on the other hand, prided himself on being a man who had built his world from nails and hammer rather than drapes and duvets. Coming from a small village near Jhansi, he had followed the classic Indian village-boy story. He came to the big city when he was all of fifteen years of age. Starting with a bike mechanic shop on the highway, he had toiled his way to a sufficiently spaced house in a small colony and a socially functional family. Though not universally loved, he did command grudging respect. The Amits of today couldn’t hold a candle to the men of his ilk.
As he bent to check the temperature of his tea, he saw his 8-year grandson Chiku peek into his room. Even though Chiku already had an inkling that this name was going be a lifelong battle against jeers and sneers, an adamant grandfather had sealed this fate for him.
If not winning, the septuagenarian grandfather certainly had a forceful personality.
While building his life in the city, he had scarce time for family and friends. After spending his childhood in a neglected village, he had decided that the best way to serve one’s family was to work hard and provide for them. If the family didn’t have anything to complain about, it was a happy family. This twisted definition of family, while fueling him for years, had certainly left ash of an unfamiliar group of people around him. He had been so busy building their future, he missed the present unfold. And so, he had decided to reclaim his parenthood by proxy via Chiku. From telling him stories to keeping track of his grades, Chiku was his pet project.
Seeing his grandfather noticing him, he came towards the balcony. Holding a red football in his hands, he looked dispirited.
‘What happened?’ the grandfather asked.
‘No one came to play today, baba. Sam and Rinku are ill, and Ashu has an exam tomorrow.’
Chiku sat down near his grandfather. Something about a dejected Chiku did not sit right with him this morning. With slow cautious movement typical of old age, he folded his newspaper and picked his now adequately cool tea. He peered at Chiku closely. While his eyes had begun to betray him for years now, his misplaced sense of masculinity prevented him from wearing reading glasses.
‘How about a story? The one with the forty thieves…’ he asked.
‘Have already heard it. Please something new. Please baba…’ Chiku pleaded. Slightly taken aback by the request, he dug back to find an interesting one. Maybe it was the episode of Chiku and the missing friends, but the dust of time fell apart to uncover a forgotten tale. He was surprised by the clarity with which he remembered this story.
Coming back to find Chiku’s expectant, he cleared his throat a little and took a sip of tea.
‘Okay. But it is a little scary. Are you sure you want to listen to it?’ he gave a disclaimer.
‘Yes, baba! Please!’ insisted Chiku, infused with curiosity now.
‘Our story starts in a village far away. The village had a small river which ran through the forest. It is in this village that our two characters, Kanha and Bansi, lived. Kanha and Bansi were best friends, just like you and Ashu. You know Lord Krishna is called Kanha, and he always carried a flute, called a bansi, with him. That is how they came to be known affectionately as ‘Kanha’s bansi’.They spent their entire day together - took their cows to the river, chased chickens in the field and whiled away their time pretending to be the kings of the jungle. Having spent all of their lives there, they knew the forest like the back of their hands. And still in their early teens, with no shackles of past and no fear of the future, they spent their days without a worry.
As winter came knocking, their village played host to an unwanted visitor – a man-eater tiger. The tiger quickly gained notoriety in the village. The fields emptied an hour before the sun went down, and any sudden movement or noise was greeted with alarm. At first, it was just cattle, but the absolute panic reached the crescendo when three children went missing over a fortnight. Villagers picked up whatever tools they could muster and formed a watch. Groups of men could be seen at night walking with their lanterns, speaking in hushed voices tinged with fear. There existed two villages then - one that had a passing resemblance to civilization in the day and one at night which looked like a piece of land under siege. With the last attack a week ago, the air was pregnant with the impending visit of the tiger. The infamous tiger had a scar over his right eye, which had led the villagers to refer to him as Kaana, or ‘the one-eyed’.
Curiosity often masquerades as bravery, and nowhere is this more evident than in the case of children. Interpreting the fearsome tiger as an opportunity, Kanha decided to assert their title of Kings of the Jungle. At that moment, nothing in the world was stronger than Kanha and Bansi together. But Bansi, being slightly older, had a better sense of what Kanha was proposing. After much debate, they settled on a scouting mission instead of an assassination. They were to spot the hideout and let the grown-ups take over from there. And one fine evening, they left to find Kaana.
After spending an hour looking for any signs of the beast or his lair, they finally decided to end the chase for the day.
‘Let’s come back tomorrow.’ Kanha said with considerably less enthusiasm. ‘We will come back…’ He stilled.
He noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Without turning his head, he knew in his heart they had finally found what they had been looking for. Kaana had managed to sneak up behind them and now was standing in a feral position. But such was the bond between Kanha and Bansi that before the beast’s paws left the ground in a jump meant to kill, they changed their direction and darted towards a tree. By the time the beast had ridden out the momentum of his great leap, Kanha and Bansi had managed to scamper up the tree onto one of the stronger looking branches.
And Kaana did not take this well.
Driven to desperation by his hunger, he had risked going for a kill when there was more than one person. And now these little cubs had gotten the better of him. Ravaged by the powerful cocktail of hunger and anger, he tried to follow them up the tree, and almost got a paw on them before his grip gave up and he slipped down. Taken aback by the vigour of their hunter, they moved a couple of feet up at a safer distance.
The sun was almost down. They hadn’t expected the beast to come out this soon. And while they had managed to outfox the tiger by the breadth of a hair, the ferocious tiger had kept at it. With his eyes alight with predatory lust behind the almost straight scar over the right eye, their survival chances were growing as dim as the day.
The night had darkened to absolute black since they had climbed the tree. The sounds of the day-world had given way to the voices of the night. A repressed tension had permeated the air around them, much like the buzz of current you hear when you stand below high-powered electricity wires. Hunger and thirst had long back knocked at their doors. And all through this while, Kaana had sat at about ten feet from the tree, looking directly at them.
‘Kanha, I want water…’ Bansi said timidly.
‘We can’t do anything, Bansi. Even I am parched.’ Kanha replied, his voice laced with desperation.
Bansi sat up a little.
‘But Kanha, where is Kaana?’
Kanha turned to look at the spot where Kaana had sat motionless for the past four hours so fast that he heard his neck crick. Bansi was right. Kaana was nowhere to be seen. As far as he could see, which was not much, the jungle was perfectly still. There was nothing to suggest that a tiger was on the prowl.
And then Bansi asked the one question Kanha had thought of the moment he had noticed Kaana was not around.
‘Should we leave?’
While common sense dictated that they should wait it out, the tiredness seeped into their bones on account of the hours of being perched on a single branch and the seemingly unquenchable thirst were overpowering the logic. One more sweep of the jungle and he gave an almost imperceptible nod to Bansi. As if waiting for his permission, Bansi immediately began to crawl down the tree. He landed softly on the ground and scanned the surroundings. Somewhat assured, he looked towards Kanha.
What he saw on Kanha’s face told him the complete story without having to look.
Kanha’s face was frozen in an expression of absolute fear. He was not even looking at Bansi. He was looking to the right of Bansi, where stood the ferocious beast. And from where Bansi was standing, Kaana looked bigger and more menacing than he looked from up the tree. Running back up the tree was not an option; one leap and Kaana would have landed on Bansi. He looked at Kanha with pleading eyes. But to his utter shock, instead of throwing his slipper to distract Kaana or trying to help him in any possible way, Kanha just shifted to a higher branch.
At that moment, the pain of his impending fate was taken over by this unexpected betrayal. His friend, his partner, his fellow King of the Jungle, had proven to have stronger survival skills than friendship.
With a last look at what used to be his friend, he made for the thick bushes that were the closest to him. With an unearthly snarl that could be heard clearly over the silent jungle, Kaana leapt after Bansi and disappeared into the jungle.
Kanha sat motionless for a minute. He had essentially signed a death warrant for his friend. When the action was required on his part, he had allowed his self-preservation instincts to take over. Had he somehow subconsciously known since the beginning that it was near impossible for both to survive? Or had he in that spur of the moment realized that this might be the only chance he may get to escape? Whatever the answer was, he couldn’t brood over it just now. He had an escape to make.
He carefully got down from the tree, one eye always looking for a sudden movement. Sensing none, he decided to go down the path exactly opposite to the one where his friend had been chased by the ferocious beast. He took off running with the cramped legs only bothering him slightly. He had been running for only a couple of minutes when he saw the unmistakable light of a lamp through the thicket. With safety so near, he prepared for the last burst when a dark shadow blocked out the light. Rooted to the spot with fear, his brain finally caught up with his instincts – Kaana was here. But that couldn’t be right. The only way Kaana could’ve circled back the entire way in time to cut off his miraculous escape was if Bansi had been able to deceive him, and quickly. There was no way he could have settled his score with Bansi and intercepted the accomplice.
That was when he noticed the scar on the eye. On his left eye. With a sinking feeling of dismay he could feel in his guts, he realized that there were two of them. While he had somehow managed to outwit one monster, the second one had stolen the happy ending from him. Maybe it was no more than he deserved.
He noticed another tree to his left. It was nothing like the one that had actually saved, rather extended, his life a few hours ago. It looked old and rickety, casting a feeble shadow in bright moonlight. But this was his only hope and he had already spent the last three seconds second-guessing himself. With a twist of ankles, he darted towards the tree. But this Kaana was slightly more aware than the previous one in the matters of great escapes. Sensing the movement, it sprang towards the tree at almost the same moment as Kanha. But even then, Kanha was slightly faster. With a deep sense of the beast’s presence a step behind him, he made a final leap and caught hold of a hanging branch. In the same motion, he tried to hoist himself up. And that was when the branch broke.
The tiger instinctively locked his jaw around Kanha’s ankle. Kanha hooked his arms around the tree tightly with his remaining strength and looked towards the lamplight he had seen earlier. He had been so close. He had almost lived to tell the tale. But karma usually has a knack for the unexpected. While the acceptance of the situation was sinking in, he realized that the lamplight had acquired a flickering quality to it, as if dancing in the wind. And he could now see at least seven of them. Such was his fatigue and confusion of the night that he realized what was happening at the same moment it actually happened to him. A watch-group patrolling the forest had spotted the movement at the edge of the forest and had come to Kanha’s rescue. Their sudden appearance seemed to have shocked the tiger and he immediately let go of Kanha’s bloodied leg. He looked around once at the semi-ring of dancing flames around him as if to assess the enemy. Deciding that it was hardly worth a fight, with one growl he leapt into the dark shadows of the forest.’
He turned and looked at his audience of one, searching for a reaction. Chiku was listening with rapt attention while his favourite red football lay abandoned to his right. He had a faint inkling that the story was probably a little inappropriate for a child. These days, you could never be sure.
‘Did they get Kaana?’ Chiku finally asked.
‘Err…no…’ he stammered, not expecting this question.
‘And the other tiger?’
‘He…he also escaped.’
‘I don’t like this story.’ Chiku decided with a pout that stuck out a stubborn chin as if challenging you to disagree.
On cue, Ashu’s cycle bell broke the moment. The delight on Chiku’s face brought out the stark contrast to the expression he wore a few seconds ago.
‘Baba I’m going. Ashu is here.’ Chiku announced and picked up his football. Without a backward glance in his baba’s direction, he took off from the room as fast as his little legs would carry him.
‘Good morning Krishna uncle!’
Amit Gupta was standing right below his balcony. He raised a hand in acknowledgement. A superficial and distinctly uncomfortable talk was the last thing he needed at this moment. He’ll be much better off spending the morning in his own room. With a sigh, he bent forward to retrieve his prosthetic leg. He made a mental note of seeing the doctor about it; it was getting more painful every day.
With another huge sigh and a heave, taking the support of the railing, he stood up and made his way towards the room.