Candles, Mass Murders and Small Towns.

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When I was a child I sat at the study desk every evening for a few hours, opening slim volumes of brown notebooks with a serenely smiling Don Bosco on the front cover, to draw maps, solve quadratic equations, summarize a poem or memorize the years of famous battles. I grew up in a modest locality of a small town in Assam, where the residents were thankful for a few hours of electricity every night. And till the time my father brought home a noisy power generator, a candle and a match box were as essential on my study table as a pen. Every time there was a power cut, it was the perfect excuse to plead to my mother that my eyes hurt reading the tiny print in the faint light of the candle. She knew me well, and after confirming with an ophthalmologist that I had excellent vision, she started bringing home newer sets of large candles with thicker wicks.

When I realized that there was no escape from the study desk, I decided to improvise new forms of amusement or escape routes. Once I dipped all the candle wicks in water, but got a much deserved scolding from my mother when she found out. Then there was the dissection of any unfortunate mosquito that got drawn by the flame and landed on the desk. I took out my pent up frustration of being confined to study on the poor mosquito; I trapped it, dissected its tiny wings with a compass from the geometry box, and then burnt their miniscule torsos in the very flame they had flocked to, rounding off the whole exercise with unblinking eyes and a sinister laugh to scare my little sister who watched it with horror from the adjacent table. I was cruel little pyromaniac burning up dozens of minute winged creatures every evening. My cousin had taught me the neat little trick that if one was fast enough, they can move a finger across the flame and not feel a thing. I did that too, till the fun wore off, and a painful blister erupted on my finger.
And when the electricity decided to favour us by returning after long hours of darkness, there was this race between my sister and me to blow out the candle, accompanied by a wish; a silly hangover from birthdays. Sometimes the loser initiated a quarrel, which my mother resolved by lighting up the candle and giving the chance to blow it out again with a wish. When I was in the seventh standard, I was infatuated by my history teacher and had made it my sole ambition to excel in his subject, and much to the amazement of my family,  even a power cut couldn’t budge me from the study desk. Once I had studied the various invasions of India with such fervour and attention that my sister gleefully watched smoke rise out of my hair for quite some time before informing that my curly hair had caught fire from the candle flame. It took a clever hairdresser to minimize the damages, but it was never the same.
Many years later, the candle returned to my life, albeit in a setting when lovers have the crazy idea to grope for their food in the dark, all in the name of romance. I suppressed a smile when I recalled our old hostility, and the mass murder of so many mosquitoes. But I couldn’t reveal it to the one who sat in front of me, without him questioning the unusual sources of amusement in my childhood. So I kept shut, lest he also found out about the evenings of dipping a flour-laced winnow board in the pond and taking it out after a few minutes, filled with tiny prawns. Or about constructing a swing in the backyard, playing table tennis without a table in a long and narrow corridor where the ball bounced off the floor, the long nights of badminton, striking a shot on the carom board I could barely reach as it was set on a tall barrel, catching dragon flies and glow worms and putting them in glass jars, digging for sweet potatoes in the garden, looking for a lost treasure at an abandoned house, climbing trees and hanging upside down from a branch; what can I say about the delights of growing up in sleepy, small towns of India. I merely smile at the memories.

My Father’s Stories: The Last Jog

 He tells his stories in the afternoon while my head rests on his belly, bobbing rhythmically to his breathing and occasionally shaken by convulsive laughter. The anecdotes evade any chronology or pattern; they are just random, like all memories are, flitting from this to that, a decoration here, an omission there. These recounting of snippets from his life and of those around him aren’t always original, I’ve heard nearly all of them multiple times throughout the years, but it’s a testament to my father’s art of story-telling, the finer nuances of his hand gestures, the adequate peppering of inconsequential details, the gradual build-up of laughter and its patient wait at the threshold for just the correct time with pauses so befitting, and a sense of observation so keen that my mother can’t help feeling the suspense of how a story would end, despite hearing it umpteen times in their thirty three year old marriage!
My father is a funny man, he could always make me laugh with his quips; but I never fully appreciated the veritable treasure of his humour until I too started to look for it in the little incidents that populate our lives. One mundane morning, we were sitting in the verandah reading the newspaper when we heard a cuckoo bird’s call. Others might close their eyes to lose themselves in this melody, but I tell my father how the cuckoo bird lays their egg in the crow’s nest, and later the parasitic young cuckoo destroys the eggs of the very crow that had raised it as its own! My father listened to it and, without looking up from his paper, he replied, “Hoboi aru. Kauri’r mukh khon ebaar monot pelua sun, dekha tei burbok jen nalage janu?” (That’s expected. Try to recall a crow, hasn’t it always looked like an idiot?) His deadpan humour gets lost in translation here, but I can’t help my snorting laugh every time I spot a crow.
I’ll write a series of my father’s stories on my blog now. No linear chronology; not all of them are hilarious; some are too preposterous to be fabricated even; some are so daring, I shudder. These are just random tales I want to share, about my father’s childhood in a village near Jorhat, his college years, his ‘angry young man’ persona at the start of his career, carrying off astounding acts of rebellion to convention and authority, and mainly his detailed observations of the people around him. Today I begin this series with an incident that occurred to one of his friends. I won’t elaborate every detail. I just assume you will imagine it quite well from what I chose to tell.

The Last Jog
 My father’s friend, KD was mortified when the doctor pronounced that his paunch would lead him to an early grave. During an evening ‘adda’ session, this knowledge created uproar among his friends as the Jorhat (my hometown) of the early 70s was a clueless virgin of the fitness trend that swamps us today. After a volley of suggestions, they came to the conclusion that physical exertion was the answer. But how can one find means of sweating his brow while living in a town that excludes rigorous physical labour in the immediate vicinity, and working at a 9 to 5 job where the only exercise is when one stretches the hand to get the lunch box from under the table? In an age much preceding gyms, how can a grown man exercise without having to resort to borrowing his daughter’s skipping rope and how would he fit his ‘exercise session’ into a busy day? A wise soul, much ahead of his time, suggested getting up an hour early to go jogging. My father claims everyone applauded heartily at that moment.
So KD, a man given to as immaculate a planning as its execution, bought a new pair of sports shoes and an alarm clock. He continued to have the effusive enthusiasm and support of his friends all through out the selection of the said items. They didn’t want their friend to die. The thought touched him and brought a lone tear to his eye when he was alone.
On the night before his first jog, KD swears he had set the alarm clock for four am. After the shock of the first ring died down, the determined man sacrificed his sleep and tied his shoe laces in the dark, not wanting to wake up his wife. As he stepped out into the dark hours of early morning, he felt such jubilation at the thought of assured longevity that he didn’t quite mind the loss of sleep. The cold air hit his face as he started to jog. 
He found it curious that not a single person was out on the road, but reasoned that everyone were fit enough to indulge in precious sleep. He felt comforted by the distant whistle of the policeman on night patrol. After running for around twenty minutes he reached a crossroad with one road leading to the courthouse and a large ground adjoining it while the other continued into smaller by-lanes a little ahead. Now my father describes the area near the ‘Judge’s Field’ in Jorhat as quite eerie (‘joyal’ was the word he used) back in those years. There were stories about it being just the place to get clubby with the ghosts of those who were executed by public hanging under the British regime. Now KD wasn’t a brave soul, he was in fact on the opposite end of the courage spectrum. But emboldened by the surge of endorphins and the surety that early-risers would soon be thronging the roads, KD made for the Judge’s field.
He decidedly avoided looking at the century old courthouse and the thick grove of trees around it. He summoned all the Gods he knew as he entered the Judge’s field alone and continued to jog. Suddenly he was startled by a loud sound and cried out ‘Aiyyo Bupai! (‘Aiyyo Father!’ the translation kills it), but steadied his racing heart when he realized that it was the courthouse bell announcing the start of another hour. Four more strikes of the bell will soon follow to announce five am. He waited. And waited some more. 
A wild fear crept in the heart which he had steadied only a minute ago. The sun had not risen for so long, the roads were still empty and the bell had rang just once. Of all the places on earth, he was jogging all alone at the haunted Judge’s field at 1 am! Such realizations would have killed a weak heart, but KD survived despite being the possessor of a heart of questionable strength, as he emphasized in so many retellings of the incident to all the people that came into his life thereafter.
He was quick to gather his senses and run for his life at a pace that surprises him even today. Who knows, what supernatural object might have lurked amidst those dark trees and traumatized Jorhat the next morning with the spectacle of KD hanging from a tree, replicating the horrors of the past! This incident wiped all traces of any rigorous physical activity forever, with special emphasis to jogging, from KD’s life. He gave away his once-used shoes to a distant relative and stashed away the cursed alarm clock. He often had nightmares of that fateful night. He continues to have a paunch and still hates courthouses, especially the haunted ones.