Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Soldier's Spirit

                                                    The Soldier's Spirit.

Narayanajja, we called him. The smell of local arrack never left him. Yet he was always as sober as you and me. He was nobody's kin in particular, yet the whole village called him Ajja. All children in the village, whose parents were busy during daytime, were left in his care. It was difficult to find someone in our generation who didn't know that thatched hut of his from a very young age.

Part of how he managed us was with his stories. Comical ones which had us in splits; tales from mythology which he would narrate when he was high(higher than usual, I mean).I can safely say we watched our first plays and movies in his eyes. Yet the best were those spooky ones-the ones that made our hairs stand on end.

We were never tired of those stories. That was why a few us went back last summer to meet Ajja and listen to one of those tales again. He obliged us, after charging us for a week's arrack. He narrated a story we hadn't heard before...

"Our Naagi's real name was Nagesha. Very bright kid. His father died early. His mother sold flowers near the temple. Naagi used to walk seven kilometres to his school everyday. He studied hard. He used to come back from school and help his mother. 

Then after a few years, those military people came to our Taluk for recruiting young kids. They conducted an exam. Naagi passed it along with....I forget his name. Anyway,Naagi passed the exam. His mother cried a lot when sending him away. But we consoled her,telling he was the the pride of our village and she should be proud herself.

Some years later,Naagi returned-in a uniform and many badges on it.He had become an officer I guess.He used to address everybody as Sir,Madam and talk in English with the school-going kids. His mother was very happy.She married him off to a girl I don't remember the girl. She was from a different caste though.It seems Naagi insisted on inter-caste marriage.And Naagi bore all expenses of the wedding.It was very different.

Then one day, war was declared. Naagi went to the border and never returned. Someone sent a letter with a  parcel to Naagi's mother. When the post master read it, the letter said that the parcel contained the ash from Naagi's burnt body. His wife and mother were shocked and in grief for a very long time. After a few days we suggested that they disperse the ash in the Kaveri River. They refused. They said that they wanted to keep it in Naagi's memory. That was when all the problems started......

Initially we thought it was some illness. Naagi's mother started becoming very silent as full moon approached. She stopped sitting near the temple for selling flowers three days before full moon. Some weeks later, she started demanding non-vegetarian food. She was a vegetarian for life. And even when Naagi had come back from the army and demanded non-veg one day,she had sent him to the miltary hotel in the next village. This new tantrum of hers made us doubt. After those 4-5 days around full moon, she would be normal.

We didn't bother too much as she didn't cause any particular concern to anyone. But later on things worsened. She would start wandering in the dead of the night. She would tie a piece of cloth on her head like a soldier. She would knock on someone's door. The startling part was she would speak perfect English
'"Officers, the enemy is not far from here. We will attack at dawn"' We never knew her to attend school of any form, let alone speak English.

After a few weeks, she lost her normalcy completely. I was sure she was possessed by Naagi's spirit. But then the rest of the village sent her to a mental hospital. Naagi's wife temporarily shifted the house to the hospital almost. It seems even when she was dying, Naagi's mother wanted some biryani. And when she died, there was a huge black mole on her neck, at the back. That mole was there on Naagi's neck only. How did it appear suddenly on his mother's neck??

Naagi's wife returned to the village. She continued her mother-in-law's job of selling flowers near the temple. Everything was normal. We thought that she was unlucky to be widowed at such a young age .But in a village,there are good people and bad ones. The Gowda's son tried to misbehave with her one day. And she taught him a fitting lesson. His right hand had two fingers missing when he returned home. But what worried all of them was when he said that a large black mole, similar to Naagi's had appeared on his wife's neck as well! And he swore there was a masculine prowess hidden somewhere in her that defeated him.

The next day, we went to talk to her. But she was as normal as ever. Selling flowers to  the women-folk, bargaining the prices and trying to please them. What was more, there was no mole on her neck that the Gowda's son had described!

A silent alarm went through the village. Though there were no outward signs of abnormality in her initially, the village developed a silent fear for her. As expected by most,she too started eating non-veg a few weeks later. The flower-selling came to a  halt.She would stay locked in her house in the morning.Some used to say that there was a smell of burning clothes every now and then. In the nights,she would roam the village streets.It was safe for her-for nobody dared to touch her after knowing what happened to the Gowda's son.She would knock at homes in the dead of the night. Only nobody would open the door. She would scream in impeccable English-though she had studied only upto Class 4.

Someone in the village with genuine concern for her suggested that the problems were because of Naagi's ash that was present in her house.If that was removed, things would return to normal gradually. Some person took the risk of removing it,after making sure Naagi's wife was roaming in some other part of the village.

The next day,she went missing. Nobody need have bothered. But there is something about bonding between villagers that doesn't allow them to keep quiet. A search party was sent to look for her. They found Naagi's wife in the Taluk bus-stand. She had got a hair-cut. Her hairstyle looked like a boy's hairstyle-or a military officer's hairstyle. That thing you call an army cut or something. And she was wearing a shirt and pant.Ofcourse, there was a mole on her neck. The search party was bewildered. However, since there were 5-6 of them, they overpowered her and brought her back to the village. It seems throughout the journey back, she was shouting in English.

Back in the village, they confined her to her home. And suddenly she became all meek and subdued. Some woman from the neighbourhood would bathe and clothe her everyday. Someone else would leave a plate of food next to the window. The rest of the times, Naagi's wife was locked away from the outside world. Occasionally, there would be a smell of burning clothes or a high pitched voice speaking English. But nothing much else.

After a couple of years, she died. Apparently she tried to light fire to the clothes she was wearing and burnt herself to death. And when her remains were being buried, all of us noticed the mole on her neck again. And that part of her body had not been burnt at all...."

It took us time to realise Ajja had stopped narrating.We had to come out of the trance he had put us in to.Ajja went inside. I started looking around. On the window sill was an old parcel. Hesitantly,I took it in my hands. It was half open. I looked inside. Inside it was ash-the shade of grey was unmistakeable. I showed it to my friends.

Presently Ajja returned.He had a vessel of lime juice and steel tumblers for all of us.
"Please have a tumbler of juice while I go for a walk .I'll come back soon."he said. As he walked to the gate,I noticed something. I alerted my friends too. There it was-it was too evident to miss. 
That mole on his neck!!

To add to the mystery, Ajja who went out for a walk, never came back again.
                                                                                             -4th July 2012
                                               -Inspired by a an incident I heard;written with a liberal dose of imagination.