ASTRAY

Chunnu and Munnu were robust ten-year-old boys with a healthy appetite for mischief. Twin brothers born to parents who had turned the world upside down in their quest to have kids after several years of marriage and uncountable failures in conceiving, trouble was their middle name!

On this day, Radhika stood in the middle of their large hall, her hand scratching her head and mouth wide open. Her husband who had just come out of their room mentally winced. That expression meant only one thing. The brats had been up to something again. What was it this time? Dreading what he would hear, he ventured timidly, “What happened? Is it serious?”

“Hmmm…” she returned absentmindedly, “Bansi kaka…” She pointed at their trusted servant of several years. “He just discovered. The boys have disappeared with the boat!”

It was now Mihir’s turn to imitate her expression and have his mouth hanging, “How is it even possible? They are just twelve. And it takes more than a man to get that boat going. How could they have gone out of their room, past our security?”

“They are Chunnu and Munnu!” his wife said simply, tears streaming down her face.

Mihir grimly dialed the police. 

***************

The sun had great fun playing hide and seek. Sometimes he hid silently behind the clouds, other times, he shone brightly. This light and shade woke Chunnu up. Rubbing his eyes, he opened one eye and stared at the sky. A curious waterbird flew up to Munnu and pecked at his cheek. He too opened one eye and looked around. They smiled at one another. Suddenly realization struck.

“Mummy Mummy!” they screamed.

“You stupid, you said the boat won’t go anywhere if we sleep in it. We are now in the middle of water!?”

“Shut up Chunnu. I am thinking here.”

“That’s the problem,” said Munnu.

As the day wore on and their small boat bobbed up and down in the placid waters, the boys felt scared and hungry. 

“What do we do Chunnu? What if we are lost?”

“We are lost, Munnu. And this time, I’m not sure we can find our own way…”

 

NEXT

Durgadas Halder belonged to the fisherman family. They lived in a small village on the banks of the river Ganga. Several generations ago, a grandfather had been greatly influenced by a passing saint. And had completely given up on his thriving fishing business to embrace a life of simplicity and non-violence. He started making low-cost indigenous cots that found favor with almost everyone. In no time, his name spread far and wide and he became known as the ‘Cot Dada’. The legacy continued. But Durga’s workshop was filled up with his favorite, unsold, wooden cots made earlier. 

Today, he sat at the river bank, on his haunches, smoking a beedi and staring at the sun going down. It always felt to him like the river was gobbling it up. But the sun always came back the next day. A sudden emotion of emptiness seized him. Stamping the beedi out, he prepared to launch himself into the waters, when he heard two men talking nearby.

“Hariya, we need to find a better person. Binoy is horrible at making and repairing boats.”

His friend Raju nodded in agreement, “Tumi tikha, dada*! And he charges so much. But there is no one else.”

“Yes. Bad luck. Cala calate thaki*. It is already dark.”

Durga das stood still for several minutes as if carved out of stone. What had he been thinking? What had gotten into him that he had become such a coward to just run away? 

He shook his head as if clearing it of some bad spirit and dragged himself back to his shack.

That night as he lay in bed in absolute darkness, the conversation between the two men came floating back to him. And he sat up straight. A jonki* flew up to him at that exact moment and sat on his nose. The light it emanated was tiny but it was light… 

An uncertain smile lit up his face, Maybe, just maybe, he had found a way…

*********

The next day, Durgadas woke up well before dawn. After slogging for hours, he had a look of satisfaction at the sight of utter destruction around him. He had hacked every one of his cots into pieces and had segregated them into different piles. The useless, rotting ones would become firewood, and the okay and the best ones would become his new creations. His smile was tired but hope-filled.

**********

The internet was exploding about this shy, insignificant man from some remote village in India who was fashioning amazing boats out of old, discarded cots. Everyone was going gaga over the sheer craftsmanship, the ingenuity, and especially the small eye-catching accents he added to every creation of his. Durga das could not believe how his fortunes had changed overnight. He now had enough money, a modest house, a lovely wife, and a beautiful baby girl

One day, his wife, asked him, “We have received so many offers from all over the world. Are you going to accept that idea from that rich man who came in his big car yesterday? 

Her husband chewed his lips meditatively, “I don’t know Shona*. Ma Durga has been so kind. We have everything. And yet, something about what he said has touched a chord in me. I feel like listening to him.”

“Then do that. Or else, you will never be fully with us.”

His wife had once again made his decision so much easier with her simple practical wisdom,” Ok Shona. I will listen to my heart. After all, it’s just a matter of a few days.”

Little did he know that it was going to be the longest ‘few days of his life!

 

LIFE COMES A FULL CIRCLE

Wherever he went, they whispered behind his back” The ‘Karrupu Bhootham’* is here. It always pained Veerasamy to think that people could be so cruel, especially to a child. Why was he so dark and so huge that he could not disappear into nothingness? 

His grandmother’s voice full of affection was his healing balm. “Chinna raasaa*, you are my karruppu Roja*, The rarest, the most precious. People will always give you names. Remember to replace theirs with your own by your hard work and goodness of the heart.” 

All his life, Veerasamy had done just that to emerge as an indomitable force that the whole of Tamil N?du and the world had to sit up and take notice of, overlooking his offending color.

At sixty years, his name was associated with many domestic and global projects and was held in great esteem by one and all. His name had appeared in Fortune 500 and had graced the cover pages of many prestigious business magazines. He was one of the top ten billionaires in the world. The ‘karruppu’ bhootham had masked all other colors!

This day, he sat in his home office, his knuckles rapping the desk, creating strange music that struck a chord with the restlessness he had been feeling in his bones lately. He looked around at his lavishly furnished room and shook his head. This was not everything. There was something more. There had to be.  He shut his laptop and rushed into a room. Switching on the lights, he looked at an old, weathered cot that stood in the center of the vast room. In comparison to its simplicity and warmth, the ornate frames and decorations that covered the rest of the room looked gaudy and cold. He sat on the cot and caressed it lovingly “Aachi, enge vittuttu poite? Tiruppi vaa, onnoda Karruppu rosaa kitte….” *

And hugging the thin blanket, he assumed a fetal position and went to sleep, imagining his head was on his grandmother’s lap. It baffled everyone that a billionaire would prefer that old cot to the high-end beds strewn all over his mansion.

Oh, they wouldn’t know it wasn’t just any cot….

*****************

Veerasamy was in one of his pensive moods when his eyes fell on this viral video doing the rounds. It was about a young man, Durgadas, who seemed to be all over the internet. His creations were beautiful but what struck Veerasamy were the man’s eyes. The eyes felt like a beacon that shone so brightly; they were seeking him. On an impulse, he just went all the way to him and told him, “I want you to make for me a boat that you have never made before. Make it with your heart because it will be made from my grandmother’s old cot. I want to stop thinking about my riches, and my work; just sit in the boat and go wherever it takes me. I can pay you in any way you want. But I have seen that something in your eyes that I had once myself. See if you want to listen to your heart and come with me.”

This was absolute foolhardiness. But Durgadas had agreed and worked day and night trying to make Veerasamy’s wish come true. After a few days, when the boat was ready, the businessman was totally speechless. It was unbelievable! The boat was so simple, serene, guileless yet beautiful just like the cot; like the soul of his grandmother…

Tears streaming down his face, Veerasamy told Durgadas, “Come with me. I want you to share my happiness when I go on my first journey on this boat. I promise it will be a short trip.” 

Durga accepted this as well. After all, he had promised his Shona that he would listen to his heart.

 

I AM AN ISLAND

Murari wanted to take a huge boulder and smash somebody or climb atop the tallest mountain and scream his lungs out. But he only stood expressionless, his hooded lids hiding the extreme hatred he felt for the most unlikely group of strangers, standing on his island.

He would never forget that day he had been peacefully sleeping when screams resembling that of a banshee nearly burst his eardrums, “Uncle, uncle! HELP, HELP! Save us please!”

He woke up rubbing and squinting his eyes, shocked to see a pair of scrawny boys, in a small boat. They looked scared and starving and were waving their hands frantically, jumping up and down. Of course, he saved them and took care of them. But the nightmare had just begun. The next two hours brought another boat with two men, who had also apparently lost their way. 

“How could one’s luck be so crappy?” he mumbled to himself. It was bad enough that everything he had envisioned had been destroyed. He had shunned everything and had swum all the way from his town to this island. Cut off from civilization, amidst nothingness, he was starting to find peace. 

“But…”  he sighed noisily. He had learned how to survive on this lonely island and right now he would concentrate on taking care of these people and send them to where they came from, especially the boys.

“Uncle, we are hungry!”

“Again?” enquired Murari drily, “Of course, a five-course meal at your service!”

“Really? You have a five-star hotel here?”

Veerasamy threw back his head and laughed, “Uncle is joking. Come, sit beside me.”

The boys hurried to his side and sat on mats that Murari had weaved from leaves.

“How did you two manage to come here?”

“My exact question,” thought Murari and waited eagerly for their reply.

“It was an accident” replied Munnu nonchalantly, “We often had parties on our grounds. Many times, we have dragged inflatable cots meant for our guests into the backwaters surrounding our holiday home. It was great fun watching them float on the water, dancing up and down. We thought our boat too would stay put. Dunno how it escaped. And the next thing we knew, we were in the middle of the water. It was so scary!”

And they shuddered while the others had a great laugh.

Veerasamy patted their heads and the three went for a stroll around the island.

Durgadas was the only one silent so far. Even now his heart was thumping loudly. He had been terrified when a sudden gusty wind had changed their entire course and they had found themselves in the middle of the sea. The sky-high waves were threatening to engulf them and the eerie sounds of the howling wind felt like a dirge. All he could think of was his family. What would happen to them? “Ma Dugga…dugga* …”

The dark clouds gathered overhead and seemed to pounce upon them like an angry demon. It was Ma’s grace that they escaped the clutches of certain death and landed up on this island. 

Shaking, they had expected no one and were relieved to find the reticent Murari and the kids. The former had not been very pleased to see them but had dutifully provided them with all the necessities.

As the weather slowly became chilly, Murari started stoking a large fire. The heat smarted his cheeks and threw his features into relief. Durga noted that he was a young, handsome man with powerful features. He seemed to hail from an affluent family. As he observed him further, he could see the tension in his clenched jaws, suppressed anger, and a tinge of sadness lacing his deportment. 

Unexpectedly, a spark shot up from the glowing ember and flew into Murari’s eyes. A yelp escaped him and he fell to the ground. The other man rushed to him and tried to help him but was pushed off, “No, let me suffer. I am a murderer!”

Durga raised his brows but pulled the youngster towards him and sat him on the ground, cradled him, and calmed him, “It’s ok, baba. Let it all out. You can trust me.”

Murari crumbled in his arms and sobbed like a baby, his face crinkling like myriad cracks on parched earth. He didn’t know why, but he felt safe with this man. And all that he held hidden in his breast for so long, tumbled out like a torrent of water in a deluge.

Durga quietly listened to his story, occasionally patting his encouragement.

“I come from a rich family and lived with my grandfather and elder brother. Dadaji* has taken care of us since our parents died in an accident when we were very young. Bhaiyya* has always been responsible while I was the naughty one. As we grew up, I felt an increasing resentment towards both as I felt Dadaji was biased against me. That day, we were having a fun banter when Dadaji jokingly said that after him, his prized bejeweled boat that was worth thousands of dollars would go to bhaiyya, and the ancient cot that has been passed on for many generations would fall to my lot.”

Murari wept some more, accepted water from Durga, and continued, “I don’t know what got into me. I felt black hatred and plucking a knife from the table, stabbed my bhaiyya.”

Murari buckled down and cried and cried, “So much blood oozed out of his wound. I got so scared. I ran away from our mansion ignoring Dadaji’s cries and jumped into a lake and swam till I accidentally reached this island. I have been so afraid. I have been so guilty, I hate myself. I didn’t want to think about what happened to bhaiyya. I have decided to die here.”

Durga allowed the boy to cry his heart out and said gently, “Now, now! just listen to me. I have learned this one thing in life. Never run away from your mistakes. You must go back and face them squarely.”

 

Murari stared at Durga as if waking up from a trance. He felt lighter as if a huge boulder pressing his heart had been removed. His labored breathing slowed down.

“We are back! See Veera uncle made us pick so many fruits!” 

Durga laughed at their juice-stained faces and Murari too smiled despite himself.

The sun suddenly seemed to plunge into the waters and the moon appeared out of nowhere with her entourage of stars, subtly lighting up the night sky. The only sounds came from insects and the cackling fire. The small group sitting around it felt a strange calm and basked in each other’s companionable silence.

Munnu was the first to speak,” I want to go home. Even though mom and dad may beat us up and ground us.”

His twin nodded,” Yes, yes! We promise we will never touch the boat again!”

‘Good boys, “chuckled Durga, “And I promise that when I go back, I will continue listening to my heart. And my heart is in making cots. The pleasure I get in making them is something else. By ma’s grace, I will try and restore my family cot business.”

Murari got up, “And I will go back and face my demons. I will no longer run away.”

Veerasamy nodded his head, “I have always been running away from my color. My success story is only a means to make people accept me. I promise, when I return, for the first time in my life, I will flaunt and own up to my color. Thank you, friends. This strange land and your company have made me realize, inside man is an eternal struggle between being tied to your cot; static and safety, and the boat; fluid and possibilities. 

We should also realize, the boat takes you on a wild ride around the world but the journey is complete only when you rest your tired bones on the good old, always there, cot!”

Tomorrow, we will go home!”

They all held hands.

The sky, the earth, and the fire, together showered their synchronous benedictions upon them…

©Aarthi.V.Karanam

TEAM: InkSlingers

PROMPT: Weave a tale in which the objects, cot and boat, play a pivotal role.

WORDCOUNT: 2969

GLOSSARY

Bengali (Thank you to my maid for helping me with authentic colloquial Bengali terms)

Tumi tikha, dada – You are right, brother

Cala calate thaki – Let us go 

Jonki – Firefly

Shona – Form of endearment in Bengali

Tamil

Kkarruppu Bhootham – Black Demon

Roja – Rose

Aachi, enge vittuttu poite? Tiruppi vaa, onnoda Karruppu rosaa kitte – Grandma, where have you gone? Come back to your black rose

Ma Dugga…dugga – Slang for Goddess Durga

Dadaji – Grandfather

Bhaiyya – Brother

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