Exercising Fire

Here is a PDF version of the story below: Exercising Fire
Exercising Fire
Premendra Mitra
Original Title: “Khanobdahe Ghonada”
First published: July 1978

“No, it is NOT!”, roared Shishir.

The thunderous harmonics reverberated across the room, flowed over the neighbouring houses, and could probably be heard around the bend of our street.

It was something of an overkill, since his voice only had to reach the top of the unrailed stairs, where the illustrious Mr. Das had his solitary rooftop room. Indeed, it was the unmistakable sound of his cheap slippers on the stairs that had been Shishir’s cue.

For reasons more obscure than usual, the gentleman had been avoiding us, and by extension, our relaxing room on the first floor. Each evening, we had trooped in dutifully and waited, but in vain; his favourite armchair remained empty. Finally, after a full week of unbroken silence, we decided to shift mode. Executive action it woud have to be, and the forcible re-establishment of bipartite communication.

Well, I say ‘forcible’. With the redoubtable Ghanashyam Das, actual force was out of the question. Our best bet was temptation, combined with intrigue. Multi-layered baiting was of essence: first, he had to be lured out of his rooftop sanctum; then, compelled to enter the relaxing room; and finally, provoked into breaking his sworn silence.

Phase One of our operation was entrusted to the culinary genius of Banwari and Rambhuj. Dumping the weekend’s groceries on them practically at dawn, we escaped quietly to the first floor. By seven thirty, the mouth-watering aroma of homemade hing kachauri rose slowly from the ground-floor kitchen, suffusing each floor with the promise of scrumptiousness. And yet – yet – the trusted Banwari didn’t appear at the rooftop room with Ghonada’s customary heaped plate.

By eight, the aroma of fresh hilsa, crisply fried in rich mustard oil, began to mingle with the savoury air of the old mess-house.

Still no sign of Banwari on the rooftop.

What calamity could have caused such breach of culinary etiquette? Could the young guards, exasperated by their week of unrewarded waiting, have instructed Banwari to cut his revered Burrababu out of the meal-line? These, we were willing to bet, had been Ghonada’s anxious thoughts for the last half hour. The sound of his slippers on the stairs – music to our ears – had to be a direct fallout of that anxiety.

Phase Two was scripted to go into operation the moment those steps were heard. And thus that reverberating roar from Shishir, “No, it is NOT!”.
“‘It is NOT’?” echoed Gour, his tone dripping with well-rehearsed scorn. “You’re suddenly the Mahabharata expert, eh? If the description of the setting fire to the Khandav woods is not in the Mahabharata, then what is this verse about? Listen:

‘A hundred yojan spread the Khandav wood
Fire blazed, flames rose, a mountainous brood.
Krishna Arjun on either side stood guard,
An assured god took the place down hard.
Crackling branches thundered atop
Dead birds, charred leaves from them did drop
Trees dead, bushes burnt, serpents made roast
Ground scorched, Nagas dead… Khandav was toast.’”

In the middle of Gour’s spirited recitation, Ghonada had stepped quietly into the room. Keeping triumph completely out of our faces, we nodded at him and patted his armchair. If Ghonada was unsettled by this offhand welcome, he didn’t show it. Just as silently as he had come into the room, he lowered himself onto the chair.

The dramatic baton, meanwhile, had passed to Shibu. “You tell him, Gour!”, he said, thumping the ground. “And Shishir, let’s not forget the vivid description of Indra arriving with almost half of creation to save Khandav from burning, of the Fire god’s despair, and of Arjun saving the day:

‘Trooping one after another      Every god followed his brother
Rushing to protect the wood
Garud and the beasts of air      Docile, vicious, foul and fair
Swarmed in to save the ’hood.
Yakshas, ghosts and their peeps      Arrived to defend Indra’s keeps
Armed to their teeth and fangs,
These besides, many more      Unafraid of blood and gore
Made up Indra’s warrior ranks.
Finally Indra, Lord Purander      Unleashed the divine thunder,
Letting rip his battle cry.
Clouds rushed in to obey      Rain darkened the light of day
The Fire God cried, “Arjun, why?”
So Partha, the Super Skilled      His special weapons then did field
‘Shoshak’ and ‘Vayabya’ of dry air
Rose those missiles ferocious high      And bid the torrents a very good bye
Indra’s clouds no more their bounty could share.’”

Now, if everyone was flexing his mythological muscles, why should I be left behind? Before Shibu could triumphantly deliver his last line properly, I jumped in, “Vyasdev himself describes the event in the original Mahabharat. Do you know how brilliantly he unfolds the scene? Listen: “The Lord Hutashon – that’s Agni the fire god for you, Shishir – then assumed his aspect of the seven magnificent flames, and began to burn the Khandav woods down. Caught in that circle of divine fire, the present moment seemed an interminable eternity. The trees and woodland creatures…”

“All made up”, Shishir interrupted laconically. “Made up, or plain wrong.”

Identical looks of shock blossomed on our faces – Gour’s, Shibu’s and mine. “Made up? The Mahabharata is made up?” I croaked, endeavouring to convey that the horror of this statement was physically choking me.
“Yes”, said Shishir, with provocative calm. “Experts have finally begun to admit that much of the Mahabharata that we have today has been edited and amended by later writers. If you had the brains to genuinely care about the epic, instead of being constantly shocked and outraged, you’d know this too. In the real Mahabharata, Arjun and Krishna were in Khandav to put off the fire, not help Agni burn the woods down”.

Here, I sneaked a quick look at Ghonada.

As seasoned observers of the mess-house at 72 Bonomali Noshkor Lane know, outrageous claims of this kind were his domain, not ours. Generally, if any of us dared to so much as set a toe on said domain, we would first be blasted with scathing sarcasm, and then be dazzled with a tall tale justifying all Ghonada’s claims. Today, we hadn’t just set a tentative toe into his domain. We had stormed it, set up camp, and were now in the process of hoisting our flag on its soil. How was the man reacting to this blatant act of plagiarism, or, if you like, this blatant mockery?

Relaxed indifference. That’s the only way I could describe what I saw. Ghonada was stretched out in his extra-padded armchair, eyes closed, gently smoking what had to be one of Shishir’s cigarettes.

I nudged Gour. Clearly, we had to take the drama up a notch.

“So…”, Gour began slowly, “the current version of the Mahabharata is wrong. Krishna and Arjun were actually on Indra’s side, trying to put out the fire, not helping it spread. Hmm. Interesting. So tell us, Shishir, since you’re clearly the scholar here, why on earth would Partha and Vasudev go out of their way to protect the woods from?”
“Well, because… they needed to”, Shishir managed, caught off-guard by this unscripted bouncer. By our calculations, a caustic Ghonada should have cut in long before this.

“Ah, they needed to!” mocked Shibu. “Could you tell us why they needed to?”

I tried to give Shishir a sympathetic look. We didn’t want to bunch up on him like this, but with Ghonada’s temper refusing to catch fire, we had to keep the temperature up for as long as possible. Shishir, however, was losing patience.

“Why don’t you ask Ghonada?”, he snapped. “Also ask him how he feels about you grilling me about the Mahabharata with him sitting right here!”

As one, our heads snapped towards Ghonada. Some time during the last exchange, he had sat up. However, he seemed just as disinclined to speech. As we watched, he lazily released a mouthful of smoke.

Shishir abruptly got to his feet and stomped to the verandah. “Banwari! Rambhuj!” he shouted, leaning over the banister, “where are the kachauris and fish? Are we going to have breakfast for lunch today?”

And those were the magic words that finally broke the week-long ice at 72 Bonomali Noshkor Lane. Ghonada’s face cracked the first hint of smile we had seen in days.
Conversation didn’t flow immediately, of course. First Rambhuj, aided by Banwari, brought in heaped plates of kachauri, potato curry, and fried hilsa – Ghonada’s plates visibly more heaped than ours. In a remarkably short time, only the fine bones of hilsa were left on the plates. As Rambhuj began clearing them away, Shishir obediently leaned forward and placed a cigarette in between Ghonada’s expectant fingers.
“Help us put Shishir right, Ghonada”, Shibu appealed,.
“Why?” said the man, exhaling deeply, “He’s quite right.”

The four of us stared at one another.
“But Vyasdev himself says…”, began Shibu.
“There’s plenty Vyasa said that didn’t survive the centuries”, said Ghonada, cutting him off. “This is but one tiny instance of us filling in the gaps, forgetting lost episodes of our oldest stories.”
“So then”, ventured Gour, “Krishna and Arjun were not in Khandavprastha at all? The whole episode was a… how shall I put it… a transcription error?”
Ghonada sat up a little straighter. “No,” he said crisply. “The current version of the Mahabharata is quite right about them arriving at Khandavprastha. However, their ‘war effort’ on behalf of Agni was all hogwash. Their real alliance was with Indra.”
“With Indra!” exclaimed Shishir, forgetting his role as the laconic sceptic. “But they fought on opposite sides!”
“Or so they had people believe”, Ghonada said, with the satisfaction of one who is in on a particularly secret secret. “Even Agnidev, a divine being, was fooled by their superb acting, so I can hardly blame mere humans.”
“But why?” I all but wailed. “Why the pretence and secret alliance?”
“For Agnidev’s own good, of course.”

This time, we just stared at the man blankly. He sighed. “It was like this: Arjun was tasked with finding Moy Danav, and contracting him to build a palace of wonder and illusions for the Pandavs. Persuading Moy might not have been easy. So Arjun took along the most skilled negotiator he knew, his dearest friend Krishna. At that time, Moy lived in the Khandav woods. Krishna and Arjun had almost reached the woods, when a frail old Brahman blocked their way. “I am starving and ill”, said the Brahman. “Would you fine gentlemen please give me enough to eat?”
Now, Arjun took the Brahman at face value, but Vasudev saw through the disguise at once. “Why, Lord Agni,” he exclaimed, “what’s been eating away at you? You look terribly unwell!”
Agni, the god of fire, may have been a little embarrassed at being identified so easily. “Nothing’s been eating me”, he confessed, “It’s what I have been eating. Have you heard of King Shwetaki? The man is obsessed with performing yajnas. I’ve almost become a permanent guest at his court. Every time his priests pour ghee into the sacred flame, I’m obliged to swallow it. I’ve had nothing but ghee for years and years! My digestion’s shot. It’s been ages since I’ve been able to eat a normal meal. Please, I can’t this any more. I need your help.”
Arjun glanced uncertainly at Krishna. “My lord”, he offered humbly, “I am but a warrior. My skills are not enough to cure your malaise. The people you need are the Ashwini twins, physicians of the divine court. I entreat you, visit them immediately.”
Agni brightened a little. “Oh, I have visited them”, he said. “It was them that told me a ghee-only diet was the root of all my troubles. They’ve prescribed a remedy too: one very large meal of freshly roasted meat. When I asked them how large, they said the Khandav woods were the perfect size.”
“I still don’t see why you need us, Lord”, Krishna said. But there was a tiny smile on his lips, as if he did see, and was rather amused by what he saw.
“Well,” Agni looked morose, “Khandav is Indra’s personal land. Did you know that? It’s under his protection. Every time I try to start a fire, Indra brings his rain clouds in and washes even the ashes away! How am I to get better at this rate? No, Arjun, Krishna, you must help me. You must hold off the clouds and rain – and whatever else Indra brings to stop me – while I burn this place down in peace.”
“Your word is our command, Lord of Fire” said Krishna, bowing. “Go forth and cure yourself. Arjun and I will have your back.”
A beaming smile split Agni’s face. Blessing the duo loudly, he disappeared into the forest. The moment he was gone, Arjun grasped Krishna’s arm.
“My friend, what have you done?” he whispered urgently. “You just pledged our armed support against the king of the gods! Even if we win, Indra shall exact a very heavy penalty for my insubordination.”
Against all reason, it seemed to Arjun, Krishna’s tiny smile blossomed into a huge mischievous one. “My dear Arjun, calm yourself. Our effort will be a ruse. We will not be fighting Indra at all.”
“But… didn’t we just promised Agni we’ll help him?”
“We did. And we will. Just not the way he asked. Listen, it’s true he’s been forced to drink a lake of ghee, but that’s not the only thing wrong with him. During a yajna, the sacred flame must remain constant and stable. Poor Agni has had to sit absolutely immobile for years, as Shwetaki poured more and more ghee into him. What our good lord needs, along with a change of diet, is vigorous exercise. And the two of us shall give it to him.”
“How?”
“Simple. We’ll wait till Agni starts a fire, and Indra’s clouds blow in to put it out. Then we’ll rush in, you’ll shoot a few arrows at the sky, and I’ll tell Agni to go to another corner of the forest and start the fire while we keep Indra’s army busy. We’ll give him a few moments, then both the clouds and us will head over to his new location. Keep this up for a few hours, and Agni will be as fit as the god of fire should be.”

“And that” concluded Ghonada, rising from his chair, “was how Arjun and Krishna conspired with Indra, and yet Agni got his health back.”

“Wait!”, Shibu scrambled to his feet. “The Khandav woods were burnt down. I mean, Indraprastha was built on its very spot. So if Krishna and Arjun saved the woods, then how…”

Ghonada cut in smoothly. “I didn’t say they saved the woods. I merely said they avoided direct confrontation with Indra, while also fulfilling their promise to Agni. Krishna, our Lord Dhananjay, was a brilliant strategist. He never lost sight of Arjun’s original task: getting Moy Danav to build the Pandavs a wondrous palace. Now, Moy was known to be difficult to work with. But driving a hard bargain is the last thing on people’s minds when a fire is ravaging his entire neighbourhood, intent on roasting the residents to death. All Arjun had to do was offer Moy protection from Agni’s wrath and Indra’s, and he’d have the sweetest deal Moy had ever made anyone. And that is exactly what happened. Indra might have been miffed when he discovered this little side-trade, but he was mollified when the glorious new city – celebrated across creation – was named ‘Indraprastha’ after him.”

Leaving us to digest that last little gem, Ghonada walked casually out of the room (with him, I noticed, went Shishir’s new tin of cigarettes). He already had one foot on the stairs when Gour finally found his voice.

“Ghonada, listen!”, he called. “How on earth could such a fascinating segment have been edited out of the Mahabharat?”

“Oh, it wasn’t edited out”, returned the deep voice from the stairs. “Corruption, as you know, is everywhere. The man who supplied Lord Ganesh with palm leaves in bulk used to thicken his bundles with dry pieces. This segment was written on one such leaf. It disintegrated within a few days of being written upon.”

The Woman Who Sold Us to Australia

“Virat Kohli has shown time and again that he is capable of great cricket. But a man’s skills can hold only for so long against the malicious influence of an unlucky woman. Think about it: every poor performance of his has happened in the presence of Anushka Sharma. Coincidence? I THINK NOTTE!

Team India should give Kohli an ultimatum: either break up with this woman, or we will kill her. NH10 style. Anyway, I don’t think their castes match.”

– The Stupid in India

City Chicks in Sarees

It happens a lot less than people would have you believe. Once, young women moved from their babyhood swaddle straight into sarees, worn around the knee with the aanchol or pally wrapped tightly around the waist. Then there came the intervening modernity of dresses, but most Bengali girls still graduated to the saree fairly young, and once there, didn’t switch loyalties for the rest of their lives.

Now, I’m surprised if I see one person below forty in Bombay’s streets wearing a saree. The times, they have a’changed. To be fair, though, there’s a class element to the city-saree. Most of the cleaning ladies in my neighbourhood wear sarees. Their employers seldom do. Is it because sartorial modernity is considered the premise of the better off? Would employers raise their eyebrows if their maids suddenly turned up in something as innocuous – and eminently Indian – as the salwaar-kameez, much less something a little more ‘western’? I haven’t had the chance to find out. However, I have noticed that one can get sarees for much less than a salwaar-kameez set, and certainly a pair of trousers and a shirt. So perhaps the cleaving to the traditional, though enforced by one’s cultural capital and form of labour, is also perhaps propped up by one’s financial capability.

This sudden nattering about sarees has been brought on by the #100sareepact. Did anyone else know about it? Now, I don’t even own a hundred sarees, and given that I mostly work from home lately, I doubt I’ll wear the ones I do have. But this sounds like a fun project, and so I think I’ll participate by adding old pictures of myself in sarees. Because memes are for modifying, right?

weddingmorningsaree

This is today’s picture. It’s my wedding morning, and I’m wearing an inexpensive red-bordered golden-yellow saree bought specifically for the messy wedding-morning rituals. This saree was a yard too short for my generous frame, so first we tried to make do by wrapping it a la Mumtaz, with a tiny pallu. That didn’t work. So then we unwrapped the whole thing, and began the first wrap from the back, instead of the front. This time, it was draped to all the adult women’s satisfaction. There’s a lesson in this process, and it is this: flaws hidden are flaws acceptable, as long as the show goes visibly on.

As people familiar with Bengali/Indian weddings will know, there are two throne-like chair at every wedding venue, one for the bride and one for the groom. They are usually overstuffed and damned uncomfortable. However, since I was doomed to spend the rest of day demurely adorning this chair, I spent the morning making damn sure the chair knew who was boss.

Indian Christians on Hit List?

There’s an interesting piece by Julio Riberio, former IPS officer, in the Indian Express today. He calls it the response of a retired public servant “in the twilight of my life”, to the recent steps taken by the central and right-wing state governments, as well as to their inaction in recent instances of horrifying incitement to violence against religious minorities. Yogi Adityanath – a fine example of the kind that pretends to be the protectors of ‘Hindutva’ – has recently called upon his supporters to dig up corpses of Muslim women and rape them. On a less immediate, more legislative level, he promises to snatch the voting rights of Indian Muslims, and make them second class citizens of the ‘Hindu rashtra’, much as Hindus in Pakistan are second-class citizens of the Islamic state. Meanwhile, Harayana is considering passing a law that would equate the slaughter of cows to first degree murder, to considerable support from urban and rural ‘Hindu’ sections.

Deviating from current western norms of rhetoric against religious aggression, Riberio has no compunction identifying himself as a Christian. And that is what makes his piece particularly strong, in my opinion. His very adherence to his religious – and therefore also to a large part his cultural – identity underlines the important role religion still plays in Indian social life, while also demonstrating that it has not, till recently, come too much in the way of everyday modernity.

Here are the most illustrative excerpts (in my opinion), but please read the whole article here.

[After the shooting that killed Indira Gandhi and clashes ensued between Sikh separatists and the State] a Christian was chosen to go to Punjab to fight what then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi termed “the nation’s battle” against separatists. I had accepted a “demotion” from secretary in the Union home ministry to DGP of the state of Punjab at the personal request of the prime minister. Arjun Singh, the cabinet minister who personally escorted me by special aircraft from Delhi to Chandigarh, remarked that when my appointment was announced the next morning, the Hindus of Punjab would breathe more freely and rejoice.

When 25 RSS men on parade were shot dead in cold blood one morning, then Punjab Governor S.S. Ray and I rushed to the spot to console the stricken families. The governor visited 12 homes, I visited the rest. The governor’s experience was different from mine. He was heckled and abused. I was welcomed.

Today, in my 86th year, I feel threatened, not wanted, reduced to a stranger in my own country. The same category of citizens who had put their trust in me to rescue them from a force they could not comprehend have now come out of the woodwork to condemn me for practising a religion that is different from theirs. I am not an Indian anymore, at least in the eyes of the proponents of the Hindu Rashtra […] “Ghar wapsi”, the declaration of Christmas as “Good Governance Day”, the attack on Christian churches and schools in Delhi, all added to a sense of siege that now afflicts these peaceful people.

Christians have consistently punched above their weight — not as much as the tiny Parsi community, but just as noticeably. Education, in particular, has been their forte. Many schools, colleges, related establishments that teach skills for jobs have been set up and run by Christians… Hospitals, nursing homes, hospices for dying cancer patients needing palliative care — many of these are run by Christian religious orders or Christian laymen devoted to the service of humanity. Should they desist from doing such humanitarian work for fear of being so admired and loved that a stray beneficiary converts of his or her own accord?

I was born in this country. So were my ancestors, some 5,000 or more years ago. If my DNA is tested, it will not differ markedly from [Mohan] Bhagwat’s. It will certainly be the same as the country’s defence minister’s as our ancestors arrived in Goa with the sage Parshuram at the same time. Perhaps we share a common ancestor somewhere down the line. It is an accident of history that my forefathers converted and his did not. I do not and never shall know the circumstances that made it so.

Victimising the Good Men

There has been a lot of noise in India lately about the banning of BBC’s India’s Daughter, forcing the house to release it virtually on YouTube (which promptly blocked its viewing, at least in India). NDTV, a channel that was originally supposed to air the show in India, registered its protest of the ban by keeping a still image of the documentary’s title on its screen for the entire duration of its run-time, while messages condemning the ban flowed steadily in the footer.

Naturally, there’s another side to this. Certain self-identified feminists have supported the ban, claiming the documentary would only serve to encourage more violent crimes. Others have claimed that the documentary tarnishes the image of all Indian men, reducing them to the (colonial) stereotype of the brutish pervert. There was even a poorly-doctored series of emails on Quora yesterday, ‘confirming’ that such stereotyping is now a global phenomenon, encouraging sexist and racist discrimination against bright young Indian males, innocent of any crime. [UPDATE: further developments in that matter here.]

This morning, I saw a more personalised take on the matter on Facebook. Here it is:
Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 12.24.32 pm

It breaks my heart to disagree, but disagree I must.

My school was a little more than an hour’s commute by bus from my home. I began to be regularly groped when I was in Class 4/5. And by ‘regularly’ I mean every time I was on the bus. This continued till highschool, by which time I had become an expert in stealth war, standing on a molester’s foot and then lifting the other leg off the bus floor so all 50 kilos of me was crushing his toes. I was also groped by uncles, friends of the family and my own ‘enlightened’ friends – although naturally not all of them.

It incenses me that someone might want to stop the exposé of our culture’s pervasive sexual repression, perversion and gendered entitlement – that has plagued me and my friends/classmates from when we were too young to understand what it was that was pressing against us in a crowded bus – because of the off chance that it might make the wonderful men in their lives look bad. I mean, I have a father who did a lot of the ‘maternal’ raising of me when I was a baby because my mother had to be at work by 7AM. My husband surpasses every single goddamned expectation a woman can have of a man who loves her. And I still will not yield to protecting the reputation of the Indian patriarchy.

One, because men who step out of their traditional gender privilege – not as a special favour, but as a way of life – are no longer part of the problem.

And two, because Indian patriarchy is so far from deserving such protection, that the horizon isn’t distant enough.

Rescued Gems

The following is an excerpt from legendary big-game hunter and animal-lover – the two are not necessarily a contradiction in terms – JimCorbette’s “Robin”.

I never saw either of his parents. The Knight of the Broom I purchased him from said he was a spaniel, that his name was Pincha, and that his father was a ‘keen gun dog’. This is all I can tell you about his pedigree.
I did not want a pup, and it was quite by accident that I happened to be with a friend when the litter of seven was decanted from a very filthy basket for her inspection. Pincha was the smallest and the thinnest of the litter, and it was quite evident he had reached the last ditch in his fight for survival. Leaving his little less miserable brothers and sisters, he walked once round me, and then curled himself up between my big feet. When I picked him up and put him inside my coat—it was a bitterly cold morning—he tried to show his gratitude by licking my face, and I tried to show him I was not aware of his appalling stench.

He was rising three months then, and I bought him for fifteen rupees. He is rising thirteen years now, and all the gold in India would not buy him.

Accompanying illustration, Kaju as a baby, new to our home.

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A Photo Essay on Destruction

We had a lovely guest for dinner yesterday. In his honour – and in an effort to keep face-licking off our mehmaan nawazi – we allowed the dogs to romp unsupervised in our bedroom, while we socialised civilly inthedrawing room.Electrified by the sudden free rein in this otherwise-forbidden room, the dogs went absolutely wild. This is the state the bed was in after our guest left.

D1

My partner saw this mess while I was clearing the dishes (we dropped by a few times in between chatting to check on the dogs). To prevent further damage, he put the dogs in the bedroom balcony, where to also hang our laundry to dry.

Once our guest left, we opened the door of the bedroom… and saw the dogs looking damned pleased with themselves.

D2

Of course, Kaju immediately made an effort to get to us, but alas, the window of his jail was too high.
D3

Shorshu, of course, thinks it is déclassé to try and rescue herself. She issued bird-like warbles, indicated she would like to be rescued from her undignified perch, and cuddled for her troubles.

D4

Finally, after I let them both out of the balcony after half an hour’s detention, Shorshu immediately jumped onto the destroyed bed and curled up, like it was her goddamned right.

D6

While Kaju posed cheerfully for the camera, proud of his evening’s efforts.

D5

So much for lessons learnt.

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